On January 5th, 2021, Gulf countries restored the severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, as announced previously, in the Gulf Cooperation Council summit preparation.
As such, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt ended their three-and-a-half-year blockade of Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in mid-2017 after accusing the country of supporting terrorism.
The Al-Ula Declaration, signed during the 41st Summit of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), has led to the resumption of travel and trade between Qatar and the blockading countries, with the countries reopening their land, sea, and air borders to Qatar.
However, there are assumptions about the fact that the blockade bolstered Qatar’s economy. This can be a positive development for regional integration. Stronger individual states will strengthen the region as a whole. Now that the blockade is lifted, the summit communique envisioned greater military, foreign policy, and economic integration among GCC member states — integration for which the region is now better positioned. How will this be achieved? How will the blockade experience inform integration efforts? How can the GCC become a more effective institution? The long-term success of integration efforts will require GCC states to work together as equal partners, agree on common objectives, and strengthen their multilateral institutions.
Since the beginning of the blockade, Qatar worked to determine, and address, the factors that led to it being perceived as a negative force in the international arena by some of its closest allies. Most significantly, it realized how negatively its support for the masses who took to the streets during the Arab Spring has been perceived by the other Gulf monarchies. As it realized that its actions have led to it being seen as a small state unduly undermining its strategic partners, it took some necessary steps to correct this perception. While remaining firm on issues of sovereignty, the authorities in Doha also made some necessary alterations to its other policies that were being questioned by the blockading states.
Also, for Qatar, the blockade had the effect of pushing it to become even more independent of the GCC. Qatar strengthened its economic and political ties with Turkey, a regional rival to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Out of necessity, Qatar also developed closer commercial ties with Iran, as Iranian airspace became a crucial corridor for Qatar to access the rest of the world. Although it became less ideological, Al Jazeera continued to cover stories critical of its neighbors, including the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
Moreover, the country became economically disengaged from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. The purpose of the blockade was to apply economic pressure on Qatar. Before the blockade, Qatar had imported much of the goods and services it consumed through its neighbors. After the blockade, Qatar was forced to quickly develop alternative supply routes, scale up domestic production of basic goods and services, and expand its Hamad Sea Port, which had begun operations in early 2017. While this involved substantial short-run economic costs to Qatar, it also helped it become more self-sufficient and kick-started the country’s economic diversification efforts. For example, Qatar went from being dependent on milk and dairy products imported from Saudi Arabia to be largely self-sufficient. Businesses in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain lost access to a market that, although was not large, provided high-profit margins.
Qatar’s gained independence will remain, even after the reconciliation. After the declaration at the summit, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Qatar’s minister of foreign affairs, indicated that his country would not downgrade its economic and political relationship with Turkey or commercial ties with Iran. Qatari businesses are looking to trade with their neighbors, not just import and invest. In the context of regional integration, these are positive developments. Greater independence is a necessary step towards real integration and interdependence. Qatar can bring to the table a stronger network of international relations, as well as diversified supply routes, products, and services produced within its borders. A more balanced trade relationship between Qatar and its neighbors can take place for greater mutual benefit.
GCC countries do have common security, military, and foreign policy concerns that require strong regional coordination. The countries have extremist elements at home and have individually developed strong security systems to monitor and neutralize possible threats to their stability. They are wary of Iran’s military strength and regional ambitions, as three GCC countries — Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia — have sizable Shia populations and accuse Iran of stoking sectarian tensions. They also have similar foreign policy concerns, such as the relationships with their migrant workers and their countries of origin, in addition to trade agreements with Europe, China, and other Asian economies. However, for countries to contribute substantially to an integrated regional security framework, they need to have strong security sectors, militaries, alliances, and networks of their own to bring to the table.
Regional integration also requires countries to work together and to coordinate on foreign policy. Saudi Arabia in particular finds itself in a precarious foreign policy position. The war in Yemen has extracted a huge social, economic, and political tool; it is facing mounting criticism over its human rights record; its efforts to contain Iran are a risk of faltering. The incoming Biden administration has signaled that it will take a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia than the Trump administration did. Qatar understands this and has signaled that it will co-operate on counterterrorism and security issues. While it does not want to give up its independent foreign policy, it is eager to reduce the pressure on other member states and support its policy priorities, including investing in their economies and suspending legal claims for blocking their airspace, currency manipulation, and other grievances.
The Al-Ula Declaration and GCC Summit were an important first step towards reconciliation, yet much work remains to be done. Indeed, reconciliation from the side of the blockading countries was driven primarily by Saudi Arabia in response to the prospect of a new Iran nuclear deal and its efforts to reduce international pressures ahead of the incoming Biden administration. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, was the face of the GCC summit and his warm embrace of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, signaled the end of the blockade. While other blockading countries have followed suit in resuming travel and trade with Qatar, bilateral discussions regarding remaining issues are needed in order to re-establish full diplomatic and commercial ties.
All GCC countries would benefit from greater coordination and integration of security, foreign policy, and economic functions. This is what the summit sought to achieve. To prevent such efforts from impinging on their national interests and independence, member states should enhance the role of multilateral institutions that support regional integration and coordination, especially the GCC. It is indicative that mediation efforts to resolve the blockade were driven by Kuwait. Even though the Gulf Cooperation Council is represented at the highest levels of government through its Supreme Council, comprised of the heads of its member states, and its Ministerial Council, composed of the foreign ministers of all the member states, as an institution, the GCC itself was barely visible. Gulf states should grant the GCC Secretariat more authority to pursue economic and foreign policy coordination efforts and even to play a more formal role in resolving regional disputes. In the end, GCC member states must work together to confront the economic, security, and foreign policy challenges they all face.
However, the timing of the long-awaited “solidarity and stability” agreement was also likely tied to the developments in the US. The Saudis knew that they had much to gain from resolving the issue before the end of President Donald Trump’s term.
Unlike Trump, elected President Joe Biden issued strong criticism of many features of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy during his election campaign, demanding accountability for the atrocities committed during the Yemen war and the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden was also expected to force the involved parties to resolve the Gulf crisis once he assumed power, so Riyadh likely sped up the reconciliation process to adopt an appeasing stance in the eyes of the incoming president.
Immediate follow-up of the Al-Ula Declaration
The news generated great excitement among people in Qatar, who have long been eager to reunite with their extended families living in other Gulf states and resume business relations with their neighbors. It was also applauded by the international community.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif congratulated Qatar in a tweet “for the success of its brave resistance to pressure & extortion” following the declaration.
During the signing of the statement, the Saudi Crown Prince called on Arab states to join ranks to counter the kingdom’s regional archrival, Iran.
“Today, we are in dire need to unite our efforts to advance our region and face the challenges that surround us,” said bin Salman. “Especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile program, and its destructive sabotage projects that are adopted by (Iran’s) terrorist and sectarian proxies and their activities that are aimed at destabilizing security and stability in the region.”
Shortly after the GCC summit, Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al-Emadi arrived in Cairo, where he inaugurated the St. Regis Hotel in Cairo. The hotel, which costs $1.3 billion and stretches over an area of 9,360 square meters (2.3 acres), is owned by a state-run Qatari Diar real estate company.
“By investing in this project through the Qatari Diar company, Qatar practically confirms its commitment to contribute to supporting Egypt’s tourism sector and its vital role in economic development and job creation, and this project is one of the Qatari investments in Egypt exceeding $5 billion in various fields,” Emadi said during the visit.
“Egypt and Qatar have maintained a vibrant underground commercial partnership despite political tensions. Qatar invests heavily in Egyptian petroleum refineries and Egypt wants greater Qatari foreign investment,” Samuel Ramani, a nonresident fellow at the Gulf International Forum, told Al-Monitor. “Formally ending Egypt’s political rift with Qatar will encourage Qatari businesses that have been sitting on the sidelines to invest in the Egyptian economy,” he concluded.