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Could the gulf crisis with Qatar be winding down?

Here’s why progress — and diplomacy — might be possible.

- December 11, 2019

Gulf Cooperation Council leaders gathered for their annual summit on Tuesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The summit took place amid signs of a possible patch-up in the 30-month rift within the six-member organization that has pitted Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar. Hope had mounted before the summit that the political and economic embargo imposed by the three member states, plus Egypt, on Qatar in June 2017 would be eased or ended in advance of the meeting. This did not happen, however, as indicated by Qatar sending to the summit its prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser al-Thani, rather than Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani.

The warm welcome given by King Salman to the Qatari premier was, nevertheless, a sharp contrast to the tension in previous council meetings since 2017. Although no breakthrough occurred at the summit, dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will probably continue alongside the ongoing Kuwaiti mediation attempts. Here’s what’s changed.

Possible space for diplomacy

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut political and economic ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017. They also closed Qatar’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, and their airspace to Qatar. Two weeks later, “the Quartet” issued 13 demands for Qatar to end the crisis. These included requirements that Qatar sever ties with Iran, close a Turkish military base, shut Al Jazeera and other Qatar-owned media, align their political and security policies with the Quartet and submit to monitoring for 12 years to ensure compliance. When Qatar rejected these demands, the crisis deepened, despite mediation efforts led by Kuwait and supported intermittently by the Trump administration.

The latest council summit differed from the atmosphere of mistrust and recrimination that characterized the 2017 and 2018 meetings for multiple reasons. The most important was the impact of the attacks — widely attributed to Iran — on maritime traffic off the UAE coastline and oil installations in Saudi Arabia between May and September. The lack of a forceful response by the Trump administration shocked the leadership of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi (in the UAE) and was followed by a reappraisal of their hitherto-hawkish approach to regional affairs.

Council chiefs of staff held an emergency meeting in Riyadh after the September attacks on Aramco and declared that an attack on one member was an attack on the entire council. Qatar participated fully in the meeting and in the declaration of support for the principle of collective Persian Gulf security. Qatari and Saudi officials also began a discreet process of re-engagement — as Riyadh probably came to the realization that for all the protestations in 2017, the real threat to regional security and stability came not from Doha. The dialogue opened a space for diplomacy, whereas the maximalist and take-it-or-leave-it nature of the 13 demands in 2017 had represented an ultimatum rather than a basis for negotiation.

Gestures provide further indications of a thaw in intracouncil tension

Emir Tamim stood respectfully for the Bahraini national anthem before a handball game in Qatar in October and sent a message of condolence to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan on the death of his half brother, Sultan, in November. These gestures won appreciation and support on social media, which itself lost much of the aggressive posturing and name-calling that had characterized the opening two years of the gulf crisis and reached its nadir during the Asian Cup soccer tournament hosted by the UAE in January.

The Gulf Cup soccer tournament that took place in Qatar just before the council summit provided visual evidence of the thaw in relations, at least on a people-to-people level. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE reversed an initial decision to boycott the tournament and sent teams to Doha. This alone was significant, because in 2017 the biennial tournament had to be moved from Qatar to Kuwait after the three countries refused to play in Doha. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia made the final and thousands of supporters defied their countries’ restrictions on travel to Qatar imposed in 2017 to attend the game, which ended with Emir Tamim presenting the cup to Bahrain in an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness.

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Despite signs of a thaw, the crisis isn’t over

The land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar remained closed after the Dec. 8 final. Statements at Tuesday’s council summit by Saudi and Emirati leaders indicated that they were not yet ready to repair the rift. The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, stated, “We are not there yet,” while Bahrain’s foreign minister continued to blame Qatar for not acceding to the 2017 demands. The new Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, meanwhile, claimed that the Kuwaiti mediation would continue away from the media glare and public eye.

Whether intended or not, the three responses provide a snapshot into how the next steps in the efforts to mend fences may play out in the absence of a unified Quartet position. The most difficult negotiations may be the ones that take place within the Quartet and specifically between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, rather than the direct talks between Saudi and Qatari officials. If it happens, a direct Saudi-Qatari agreement to at least reopen the border and airspace would just be the first step in a sequential and incremental process of negotiation over the trade-offs necessary to reach a broader political resolution.

Even if a wider resolution can be reached, it will take great time and effort to overcome the impact of the most severe rift in gulf politics for a generation. The way the gulf crisis targeted people and families makes it different and deeper from previous bouts of tension between governments and leaders. That the council’s own dispute settlement mechanism was bypassed both in 2017 and in a first iteration of the rift in 2014 also requires the council to identify ways to prevent its members from turning against each other. The council cannot simply return to a pre-2017 status quo ante if it wants anything more than a cold peace to define the next phase in gulf politics.

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Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East examining the changing position of Persian Gulf states in the global order, as well as the emergence of longer term, nonmilitary challenges to regional security.