The next few months will be a critical test on how the Saudi-Qatar, and perhaps more importantly, UAE-Qatar relationships unfold.
A day before the scheduled 41st Gulf Cooperation Council summit which started on 5 January, the leadership of Kuwait, which had been mediating between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to end a 3-year long blockade against Doha by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi announced that the Qatari leader will attend the GCC summit in Al Ula. As part of the ensuing agreement, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain agreed to restore full ties with Doha.
Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani landed in Al Ula and was greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), an embrace which is now expected to end Doha’s pariah status within the GCC. Sheikh Tamim arrived at the summit in an aircraft named “Ushaiger,” after a historical town in Saudi whose history includes being the ancestral home to prominent tribes such as the ‘Tamim,’ which includes the al Thani family.
In 2017, Qatar was banished from the GCC in a move orchestrated by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for supporting terror groups, giving home to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and generally punching above its weight in the region’s affairs. Till a certain extent, the move was also a show of dominance by the duo of MbS and UAE’s ruler Prince Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ), now widely regarded as the most powerful and influential figure in West Asia (Middle East). However, the eventual outcomes of the blockade were arguably not what Saudi and UAE expected. The Arab states in June 2017 had reportedly given a list of 13 demands, which included Doha curtailing its alleged support to the likes of Al Qaeda in Syria, backtracking on ties with Iran and shutting down its state-funded news outlet Al Jazeera. It remains to be seen for now how many of these demands, and till what extend, has Doha agreed to address.
Arguably, Qatar has come out victorious in this intra-GCC battle. Even if it has made concessions to achieve normalisation at Al Ula, the small but rich country showcased resilience, and managed the economic blockade without any major domestic crisis. During this period, it also invigorated a strong sense of nationalism not only with the local population, but the expats in the country as well, a phenomenon not witnessed often. However, to make it so, Doha forged closer ties with Saudi and UAE foes Iran and Turkey. In June 2017 itself, Turkish troops arrived in Qatar, with more numbers added in December that year to back Doha’s position and Tehran increased shipments of supplies to the import dependent country. Going forward, it will be interesting to follow how Doha now manages this balance. Cutting military ties with Ankara will be an unreasonable expectation, and the ensuing silence by the UAE around this normalisation orchestrated under MbS’s blessings also gives weight to reports of disagreements between MbS and MbZ over regional geopolitics.
For Abu Dhabi, the rift with Qatar has been a much deeper, ideological one. Doha’s support for the MB has been a singular point of infraction for MbZ, who has taken on MB and political Islam in the region aggressively. When MB backed Mohamed Morsi won elections in Egypt in 2012 after the Arab Spring revolution ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak from power, MbZ deported thousands of Egyptian preachers and teachers from the UAE, and later declared MB as a terror group. After Morsi was ousted in a coup, and military rule came back to Egypt with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Abu Dhabi pushed Cairo to regulate mosques and preachers in a bid to control MB’s influence. MbZ’s fraught personal and family history with MB has made the group a non-negotiable issue with the leader.
The answer to a widely asked question over this past week, on why the Saudis decided to go against UAE’s stand and drop the conflict with Qatar is once again steeped in geopolitical and geoeconomics realities. For MbS, expansive regional conflicts mean more financial resources devoted to defence and foreign affairs, and less availability of funds for the drastic domestic reforms the Crown Prince has planned. With oil prices not expected to cross $60 per barrel in the near future, the oil reliant kingdom’s requirement to push away from its addiction to petrodollars is also a cost to bear. An end to intra-GCC rifts, a non-official normalisation (for now) with Israel and strong partnerships with the West means Riyadh is largely left with one geo-political task, that is of Iran. MbS’s aims for the transformation of Saudi society not just economically, but politically and culturally as well, is one that is not to be undermined as an easy undertaking. His wishes to move the kingdom away from being known as a regressive theocratic state is in direct conflict with his aims to build Dubai like centers in Saudi. Without a drastic shift in global perception, this pivot towards building global financial centers is an extremely difficult dream to achieve. And already, MbS has been off to a bad start in this regard, with imprisoning multiple members of his family on corruption charges, incarcerating women’s rights activists and civil society actors, and being involved in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi taking more of the headlines than his ambitions for Saudi Arabia.
The winds of change in Saudi’s approach towards the intra-GCC conflict had been brewing for some time now, pushed by the US, with President Donald Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, firmly keeping the GCC normalisation as a major aim after achieving the official normalisation of ties between Israel, UAE and Bahrain, known as the Abraham Accords, signed in September 2020 in Washington DC. This development, from a Gulf perspective, is also a signal of unity for the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden. By resolving intra-GCC feuds, Riyadh will be able to put forward a much more united front in Washington DC against Iran, in collaboration with Israel, against the eventual attempts by the Biden administration down the line to bring back the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) that Trump, much to Israel and the Gulf’s delight, unceremoniously exited from in 2018.
Meanwhile, amidst the rapid pace of West Asia’s geopolitical shifts and navigating through the global challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, India had orchestrated a strong diplomatic push in the region. Arguably getting a whiff of things to come, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a timely call with the Qatari Emir last month, followed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visiting Doha days later. A peaceful and stable Gulf region is critical to India, and these diplomatic interventions, which included top level visits to Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, were largely designed around one aim, a swift return of the Indian diaspora to the Gulf which was forced to return due to the pandemic in large numbers. Beyond these immediate aims, Modi also discussed creating a task force to facilitate Qatari investments in India, with the small nation being one of the richest countries in the world thanks to its vast natural gas reserves. It is to note that open talks about investments, a specific task force and so on were far and few while the intra-GCC feud played out, as New Delhi paid more attention to strengthening its relations with UAE and Saudi Arabia while maintaining a traditional diplomatic balance between all sides.
The next few months will be a critical test on how the Saudi-Qatar, and perhaps more importantly, UAE-Qatar relationships unfold. As mentioned earlier, clarity is yet to be achieved on what kind of concessions were agreed to by Doha in order to make this reconciliation work, and more importantly, how Qatar’s leadership now manages its relations with the Gulf on one side, and Iran and Turkey on the other, with the latter having supported Doha in its time of need.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +