GCC leaders and a foreseeable reconciliation. Source: www.gulfif.com

Following the Gulf Cooperation council rift dating back to 2017, the current evolution of the situation indicates that the crisis might end soon.

Qatar is under air, land, and sea embargo imposed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. The four countries severed ties with the tiny Gulf peninsula in the summer of 2017, prompting a diplomatic crisis in the region.

The so-called Anti-Terror Quartet’s rivalry with Qatar stemmed in part from the country’s support for Islamists during the Arab Spring uprising, Doha’s relations with Iran, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and coverage on the Qatari-funded satellite news channel Al Jazeera. Also, on a more general note, Qatar denies supporting terrorism and refused to comply with the quartet’s demands.

The US Trump administration made ending the rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council a foreign policy priority. At the beginning of December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was “very hopeful” there would be a resolution, but he didn’t say if that would come before Trump leaves office. Last month, Jared Kushner, senior adviser to the US president, visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar and met with both countries’ leaders as part of this push.

In a statement carried by the Kuwait News Agency on December 4th, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah expressed his appreciation for the ongoing and constructive efforts being deployed to end the Gulf crisis. He added that during these talks, “All parties affirmed their keenness to achieve Gulf and Arab solidarity and stability and reach a final agreement on permanent solidarity between their countries in a bid to serve the interest of these countries’ people.” He also thanked US President Donald Trump for “his support [to end the Gulf crisis], which reflects the US commitment to preserving the security and stability of the region.” The Kuwaiti foreign minister further said his country’s efforts to resolve the Gulf crisis are ongoing based on the directives of the political leadership.

In a press briefing on December 10th, Timothy Lenderking, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Peninsula affairs, lauded Kuwait’s efforts, calling their role “extremely helpful.”

The four countries set 13 demands that Qatar needed to meet for the relations to be restored, including the closure of the Al Jazeera channel, the closure of a Turkish base on its territory, and the severing of relations with the Muslim Brotherhood.

On December 8th, UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba declared there are “seeds of progress” in resolving the blockade that the UAE and its Gulf neighbors imposed on Qatar. “I think there’s definitely progress or at least there are seeds of progress,” Otaiba told the Hudson Institute think-tank during a virtual event on that date.

“There are a lot of commitments … to kind of tone things down, to stand down. If that holds, I think it is promising. I think there is a chance that you can at least begin a process of deconfliction,” Otaiba added.

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor last month, Meshal Al-Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, said the Trump administration’s efforts to end his country’s isolation made him “optimistic”. “The crisis is an important [issue] to be resolved; it is in the national interest of the United States,” Thani said, adding that he’d seen “encouraging signals” from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.

In addition, Prince Faisal said last month he believes there is a “path toward” addressing the quartet’s security concerns that could be resolved “in the relatively near future.”

Also, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah said on December 11th that “fruitful discussions took place during the last period in which all parties affirmed their keenness toward Gulf and Arab solidarity and stability, and to reach a final agreement.”

In reaction, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud tweeted: “We look with great appreciation to the efforts of the State of Kuwait to bridge the gap in views on the Gulf crisis, and we thank the American efforts in this regard, and we look forward to being successful for the benefit and good of the region.”

The resolution of the diplomatic crisis may herald wholesale changes in the regional balance of power that will necessarily affect ties among Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, analysts say.

Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that the Trump Administration is working to achieve reconciliation between Qatar and other Arab states in the Gulf, as American officials eyeing their political futures seek to secure an additional foreign policy accomplishment before leaving the White House next month. “The Trump Administration has invested substantial political capital in the Middle East, and they are hoping for quick yields beyond the Israel portfolio,” Mogielnicki said.

Saudi-Qatari fence-mending would reduce Qatari dependence on Iran on several levels, including ending Doha’s reliance on overflying Iranian airspace, he explained. “If Saudi-Qatari reconciliation occurs, the UAE would have to decide whether to follow along or chart its own course concerning relations with Qatar,” he added. Mogielnicki indicated, however, that even in the best-case scenario, Qatar would not abandon the broad range of new political and economic links that it has forged to combat the blockade that began in 2017. “Qatari ties to Turkey and Iran might be less visible under a stronger GCC, but they aren’t going away any time soon,” he said. When the blockade was announced, Iran was quick to provide assistance, while Turkey expressed support for Qatar and sent military forces to Doha, in a move that aroused great resentment among the Saudis.

Suleiman al-Ogaily, a member of the board of directors of the Saudi Society for Political Science, told The Media Line reconciliation would be good for the region, as it would reduce political polarization. “If the Gulf crisis were to be buried, several crises would be buried along with it,” he said.

The Qatar crisis has exacerbated many other crises in the region, such as the one concerning Turkey and the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 inside Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate, Ogaily said. “I believe that Doha needs reconciliation because of the political blockade, which has cost Qatar huge economic losses,” he added.

Harmony in the Gulf would reduce Qatar’s political and economic dependence on Iran and Turkey, he pointed out: “We may see Doha dispensing with the Turkish military base, which is one of the 13 conditions, in order to excise this explosive issue that strains the Gulf political climate.”

Additionally, Ogaily said that if Qatar could restore trust with its Gulf neighbors and Egypt, Doha might try to bridge the gap between Ankara and the Arab Quartet composed of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. He said the reconciliation effort is still in its beginning stages, and it has been facing challenges from opposition by some of the countries that have cut ties with Qatar, as well as from some parties inside Doha. “Even the official statements were too general. Yes, they welcomed the reconciliation, but they didn’t provide any information or details concerning achieving any of the reconciliation stages,” Ogaily said. “It’s not going easily, and maybe these parties aim to keep the Gulf area in crisis and the GCC weak and divided.”

Saleh Ghareeb, a Qatari political analyst and writer at the Al-Sharq newspaper, told The Media line the Kuwait statement was expected after a series of visits by Kushner to Doha, Riyadh, and Kuwait. “As Gulf citizens, we are waiting for a Saudi statement, which will determine what has been reached,” he said.

These agreements could include, he said, reopening Saudi airspace to Qatar Airways, opening the land borders linking Doha with Saudi Arabia, and ending the measures that were taken on the day that relations were severed with Qatar, including closing all air, sea, and land ports.

Ghareeb suggests that US President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory over President Donald Trump, who has been a major supporter of the Arab Quartet countries, pushed Saudi Arabia toward reconciliation with Qatar, including “relinquishing the 13 conditions, and reiterating that it only wants Al Jazeera to reduce its severity toward Saudi Arabia.” He said that Biden’s criticism of Saudi Arabia regarding human rights violations, including the killing of Khashoggi and in the Yemen civil war, in addition to the Gulf crisis, contributed to the urgent move by Saudi Arabia.

“I believe that this American pressure on Saudi Arabia for reconciliation represents the situation of the region after the killing of the Iranian scientist,” Ghareeb continued, referring to the slaying of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran on November 27. “This concern for reconciliation with Qatar came to confront the dangers posed by Iran in light of the nuclear scientist’s assassination,” he said.

He added that reconciliation would deprive Tehran of $100 million in revenue for Qatar Airways overflights, and transfer this amount to Saudi Arabia, as the airline would no longer need to transit Iranian airspace to circumvent the blockade. “Reconciliation would open paths to resolving the crisis in the Gulf area, as it would undoubtedly strengthen the GCC states after the division due to the blockade on Qatar,” Ghareeb said.

Mithat Rende, a former Turkish ambassador to Qatar, told The Media Line that at the same time as a channel of communication was re-established between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, another channel was opened between Istanbul and Riyadh.

On the sidelines of last month’s G20 virtual summit chaired by Saudi Arabia, Saudi King Salman called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and “they agreed that their foreign affairs ministers should establish a dialogue to normalize relations between the two countries,” Rende said. However, this normalization will not be easily achieved, as the Saudis have continued with their boycott of Turkish products, encouraged by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, he said. “So, we expect the deeds to match the words on the part of the Saudis,” he added.

As long as Gulf reconciliation brings peace and stability, it will serve the people of the region and be welcomed, Rende said, adding that “it could help normalize Saudi-Turkish relations. Maybe the Saudis would like another reconciliation, with Istanbul”. “I don’t think that Turkey and the Gulf countries, or Turkey and Egypt, should continue with strained relations for the period ahead. They should normalize relations”, he continued. “We have no border dispute, and no blood was shed; why should they continue with very limited relations and bilateral activities? It’s not in the interest of the peoples,” Rende added.

In response to the GCC progress on the matter, after Saudi Arabia and Kuwait announced that they had made progress toward ending the dispute, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry praised Gulf efforts, particularly those of Kuwait, aimed at bringing an end to the years-long crisis that has pitted Doha against Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

In a December 8th press statement, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez expressed his country’s appreciation of the continued efforts made by Kuwait’s emir to heal the Arab rift and settle the crisis that broke out in 2017 between Qatar and the Arab Quartet countries, within the framework of Kuwait’s constant desire for stability in the region. “We hope that these commendable efforts will pave the way for a comprehensive solution to all the causes of this crisis and ensure strict and serious commitment to what will be agreed upon,” Hafez added.

While Bahrain has yet to comment on such efforts, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted December 8th that his country “appreciates the efforts of sisterly Kuwait and the US endeavors toward strengthening solidarity in the Gulf. It also supports, on behalf of the four countries, the sound Saudi efforts.”

US officials say they believe the dispute with Qatar is impeding the establishment of a united Gulf front to confront Iran. Gargash added that the UAE “knows full well that the GCC relations with brotherly Egypt are a fundamental pillar in preserving Arab security and stability in the region, and it is looking forward to a successful Gulf summit.”

The reconciliation efforts also have been welcomed by the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Yousef Bin Ahmad Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Othaimeen, who in a December 4th statement praised the efforts made by Kuwait to promote Arab and Gulf solidarity and stability.

The present reconciliation situation seems to also be indicated by the reports which state that the annual summit of the GCC to be held in Riyadh on January 5th has on top of its agenda the end of the mentioned dispute. The importance given to this event is also demonstrated by the direct attendance of the GCC leaders at the summit, which will not be held virtually, according to  Kuwaiti diplomatic sources.

This article was edited using data from the following websites: www.aljazeera.com, www.al-monitor.com, www.insidearabia.com, www.middleeastmonitor.com, www.english.alaraby.co.uk, and www.gulfnews.com.

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