Is Gulf crisis with Qatar over after GCC summit in Al-Ula?

Dr.Moataz Salama

According to what was indicated by Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani in his interview with Al-Jazeera on January 7, 2021, the forty-first summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council that was held in the Saudi city of Al-Ula on January 5th 2021, witnessed the signing of an initial document  contained directives and general rules for overcoming the current dispute with Qatar while confirming the main  constants included in the statement of the Cooperation Council. “In light of clear basics, which are: not to prejudice the sovereignty of any state party, not to interfere in the internal affairs of any country and to cooperate in terms of confronting threats to national or regional security and or in terms of  combating terrorism and terrorist entities. ”

The most important point to which Qatari minister referred to in his comment on a question about reconciliation with Cairo was his assertion that the reconciliation will be unilateral and that there will be committees and bilateral meetings between both parties to develop solutions and mechanisms for the future vision of relations. He also noted that the outstanding issues will be discussed bilaterally through a mechanism with each country separately.

According to the Qatari minister, the disputes between Qatar and each of the parties differ in terms of their nature and it was remarkable that the minister affirmed Qatar’s respect to Al-Jazeera and its role while asserting that the channel should not designate any hostility towards a country and that it should not be met with hostility by any state.

Thus, the reconciliation was based on inputs different than those inputs of the past. In this regard, statement of Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan’s, pointed to  the most important guarantee for the implementation of the “Al-Ula Agreement”, which is the “political will”. The agreement does not include any binding force  except for the parties’ assessments of their national interests and  risks to their national security as a result of the continuing crisis. This applies to Quartet parties as it does to Qatar; each side acts upon what it deems appropriate to preserve its constants and national interests.

Meanwhile, tendency of the Gulf Cooperation Council states towards reconciliation drew the attention to one of the GCC states ’traditions”,  preference for settling intra-regional crises away from the media. Those problems among the GCC states shall not be reflected in the texts of official statements. Therefore, over the life of the Council (40 years now), a reader of the closing statements of its regular or exceptional summits will not find an indication to any problem between its states of any kind.

For that reason, there are several calculations that pushed for the Gulf reconciliation by a prior political decision. Besides, there are pressure factors on decision-makers in the Gulf countries in order to end the crisis and to give priority to détente, the economic costs of the “Covid-19” epidemic and the decline in oil prices, which was reflected in the reduction of public budgets, budget deficits, layoffs, and labor market shifts and consequently made the Gulf of 2021 different from the Gulf of 2017. In addition,  celebration this year of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the GCC and the reception of a new contract in the history of the Council necessities dictate that GCC should be different than the most difficult decade that passed for the GCC countries (2010-2020) in terms of crises, inter-differences and societal “disruptions”.

These backgrounds were reflected in the recent statements of officials of the GCC countries, especially the foreign ministers of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which seemed to push towards reconciliation regardless of previous situations. The statement of UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Anwar Gargash, on January 7, 2020, clearly affirmed  the desire to “restore basic ties quickly,” considering that “building confidence and handling geopolitical files represent two long-term tasks.” Still, this may seem too difficult to make sense, especially for the non-gulf mindset in light of the known Emirati-Qatari strategic discords.

The GCC is likely to have a strong push of initiatives in the coming months, exceeding its previous pace. The peoples of the GCC states – especially the Qatari and Saudi peoples are thirsty for reconciliation and this emerged in the internal celebrations in Qatar and the GCC countries after the summit.

Statement of the Gulf council  included 117 clauses related to reviving all  previous initiatives in the fields of economic, political, security, military, educational and health files.

An opportunity for a challenge-driven reconciliation

Returning to the causes and circumstances of the crisis in 2017, there were strong justifications for the Quartet countries to adopt this situation towards Qatar due to the Qatari support for extremist forces and groups seeking to destabilize those states and Qatar’s adoption of inflammatory rhetoric through Al-Jazeera networks and channels funded by Turkey. It is true that this Qatari stance did not change until the time of the Al-Ula summit, rather, hostility increased between 2017 and January 2021. However, it is wrong to believe that Qatar did not change or did not learn the lessons, instead, getting its speech to higher levels of hostility during those years was nothing but an attempt to push parties of the crisis to reconsider their stances, bearing in mind that Qatar remained virtually, socially and politically beleaguered in the Gulf ground during that period.

Qatar was boycotted in 2017 by a decision of the Quartet, according to a specific  vision to manage the relationship with Doha and confront the Qatari approach while it was decided to start reconciliation with it in late 2020 also by a decision by the Quartet countries. Such détente  decision came in 2020 in light of a Gulf situation calling for rising to the level of dangers and threats facing everyone.

This change in the Quartet’s vision to the crisis in 2020 should not be interpreted from a victorious or defeated angle. This is not the correct approach to read the crisis while the quadripartite concession towards Qatar will not be seen as a breach of the sovereignty of any of the four countries.

On the other side, concession in the Qatari side towards the Quartet is seen within the ruling system in Qatar and within some Gulf circles and the educated elites as a breach of state sovereignty and the personal dignity of government. This is always the case in the small countries if alliances are formed against them from great powers. This logic in managing relationships has a great influence on the Gulf reality in general as when “rebellion” occurs against the sheikh of the tribe, the principle of the father who is the eldest in a family prevails. This father  must accommodate everyone, considering the Saudi Kingdom the pillar of the Gulf tent.

Actually, this situation of the Cooperation Council now meets a real need for the peoples and intellectual and cultural elites in the Gulf, who were greatly affected by the crisis, as well as sectors among the decision-makers that were expressing their views in different ways and forms. These sectors have expressed their desire to end the crisis and boycott, and the position of societies, elites and some officials was torn between Gulf identity and national loyalty, as reflected in their discourse, which alternated between the two extremes.

Gulf celebrations of reconciliation, even among the elites who have placed themselves at the forefront of the confrontation since the first day is an ample testimony to reconcile backing. Logic of absolute hostility between states and nationalities don’t control the Gulf, but rather the feeling of Gulf citizenship prevails.

Behind the patriarchal logic of Gulf thought, there is a pragmatic logic that quickly conquers interests. This is reinforced by the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had previous experience, when the Emir of Qatar contacted him, in an attempt that failed and followed by different narratives between Qatar and Saudi Arabia regarding who took the initiatives and who made the demands. These matters although they seem small according to the calculations and logic of countries in regions, it had the biggest role in aborting reconciliation efforts.

Six months before the start of the crisis, which arose in May 2017,a telephone conversation took place between the Saudi crown prince and the Emir of Qatar, coordinated by US President Donald Trump, and after news conflicted about the stories of the communication, after the Qatar News Agency had announced the news of the communication in the form that affects the Saudi position as the Saudi Crown Prince was portrayed as the one who initiated, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Kingdom “announces the suspension of any dialogue or communication with the authority in Qatar until a clear statement is issued in which it publicly clarifies its position, and that its public statements are consistent with what it is committed to.” .

The channels of communication between Saudi Arabia and Qatar continued to exist at lower levels, until they intensified in late 2020, through the channels of the Kuwaiti and US mediators, and reached a level that encouraged the Kingdom to take upon itself the file of reconciliation on behalf of the country, while  other three countries settled in the Quartet coalition, considering the Kingdom as its representative in the dialogue With Qatar.

The formal output of the summit preserved the image of the Quartet. While Prince Tamim, head of the state in question attended, the official and actual leaders of the four countries (President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi), and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud were absent from The summit, leaving an important sign in terms of preserving the harmony between the Quartet’s position.

The files that press Qatar to correct the internal path and the regional trend may enhance the chances of the success of the reconciliation. In this context, there are four files before Qatar, all of which push for a “forced” and not optional – change in its behavior.

The first file is the media reform file, with the aim of returning once again to a professional, non-ideological media after the negatives of the past years that put Qatari media out of the right path.

The second file is the sports file, which is the file in which Qatar has made significant progress by organizing the FIFA World Cup in 2022, and recently winning the organization of the 2030 Asian Games.

The third file is the financial file, by focusing on increasing international Qatari investments (ports, hotels and stores, stock exchanges, clubs, financial institutions).

The fourth file is the internal political file, and significance of this file is reflected when Al-Ula summit included the reference to the fact that “the Supreme Council took note of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar, that the Shura Council elections will be held next October.” It is likely that the text on this in the statement of Al-Ula came upon a recommendation of Qatar.

These four aforementioned files pushed Qatar towards preferring stability over spreading regional turmoil.

Perhaps we can add to the previous,  the file of the future of government in Turkey as the time span for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presence at the head of power. There are some possibilities of the return of secular rule and the loss of the Development and Justice Party, so the Qatar’s embarking on reconciliation becomes the correct decision, in preparation for a change that may affect the Turkish ruling regime.

Trends in Regional Alliances 2021

The question that arises after the Al-Ula summit is about the direction of regional alliances after the summit. Over the forty months since the start of the crisis in 2017, the shape of alliances and interests in the region has changed, and new actors and issues have dominated the region, all of which will need to be reconsidered in light of the developments in reconciliation.

The Qatari minister uncovered  the terms of the agreement, which will take place through bilateral committees between Qatar and each country separately. In this regard, there is a possibility of progress being made between Qatar and the Quartet in an uneven manner, in other words, a manner that may end in a change in alliances. Here arise some questions, will the Quartet alliance end as a temporary alliance was urged by necessity to face Qatar? will it continue as a bridge of development and transient stability between the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world?

The answer to this question leads to the examination of four files:

The first file concerns the future of Saudi-Qatari relations. Indeed, Al-Ula summit placed the reconciliation file in the custody of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the representative of the Quartet, and Qatar as a representative of itself. Despite the differences between the two countries in the essence of the political doctrine established by the years of the crisis in the strategy of combating terrorism and in the internal files, under the light of elements of consensus that existed between the two countries before 2011 (including religious Salafism and the taming of dynamic Islam) and those possible after the Al-Ula agreement 2021, the two countries may be attracted to play a common role between regional blocs.

The Kingdom will be tightened to reconcile its commitment to the Quartet regarding the fulfillment of the benefits of reconciliation and Qatar will be tied to reconcile its alliance with Turkey and Iran and its resumed relations with the Kingdom. Therefore, thre is a space for the two countries to play multiple roles between the Quartet, Turkey, Iran and Israel. If the two countries exchange information and files that have emerged over the past years regarding networks of Islamists, the Brotherhood, the media, Turkey and Iran, they will make themselves a center for important regional interactions.

The question: Can countries rebuild bridges of trust around alliances and interests, and can the Kingdom attract Qatar to the anti-Islamist political ideology?  Will Qatar attract the Kingdom to take advantage of the media and financial networks of influence and tame the dynamic Islamist stakes race again? Actually tackling this issue under the awaited developments will take a long time. Both states are likely to remain for a while in this interactive and dialogue process until they reach the station of trust that enables both to benefit from the other and to play on its strategic square.

The second file is the Saudi-Gulf Coordination Councils. Over the years from 2015 to 2020, Saudi Arabia established coordination councils between it and countries inside and outside the Gulf Cooperation Council in order to enhance the factors of stability, confirm the regional anti-terrorism strategy and to consolidate cooperation and coordination between the Kingdom and the GCC countries, with the aim of overcoming the challenges of the crisis presented by Qatar in the Gulf reality. These councils enabled the re-establishment of Saudi relations regionally and in the Gulf region.

In this context, the KSA established, during the period (2015-2019) five councils for coordination with Egypt (November 2015), the Emirates (May 2016), Iraq (August 2017), Kuwait (July 2018), and Bahrain (July 2019). Under the panel of these councils, many meetings were held between senior officials and dozens of agreements and memoranda of understanding, coordination and cooperation were signed between the ministries and institutions of the Kingdom and the ministries and institutions of the aforementioned countries. Here, impact of the return of the effectiveness of the Gulf Cooperation Council on these councils and institutions shall be questioned. Does the Kingdom’s desire to devote the special path in its relations with countries through the coordination councils retreat after the return of the effectiveness of the Gulf Cooperation Council?

Coordination Council between the Kingdom and Qatar was previously established since 2008 and five meetings were held in its framework, alternating between Riyadh and Doha.  The first meeting was in December 2008 while the last was in May 2017, days before the crisis between the Quartet and Qatar. Under this council, the two countries signed dozens of agreements and memoranda in various fields, including political, military, security, economic, diplomatic, financial, commercial, industrial, investment, cultural, media, agricultural, air transport, endowments, Islamic affairs, environmental and health , Municipal, urban planning, transportation, infrastructure, energy, higher education, and scientific research, in addition to cooperation between the private sector in the two countries. This indicates the nature of relations between the Kingdom and Qatar prior to the 2017 crisis, which suggests the possibility of restoring these relations strongly.

The third file deals with the conflict files in the regional arenas, especially Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria. In the past years, two blocs in the region faced competition and conflict on the arenas of the four countries, and the two blocs’ approaches were based on the contrast between the situations of both of them on combating terrorism and confronting the dynamic ideological project of Islamist groups in the Arab countries. The directions of reconciliation between the Quartet and Qatar would lead to a measure of interim stability to test the intentions between the two sides and to know the limits of commitment to the Al-Ula agreement.

During this period, the curtains are likely to be lifted to reveal the limits of the compatibility between the Qatari, Turkish, and Brotherhood projects in the region. Who are the original and who are the subordinates, who are temporary and whi are sustainable, and who is limited to funding and who directs, and what are effects of the absence or reduction of funding? Significantly, the days following the Al-Ula statement indicated a degree of variation between the Qatari platforms (Al-Jazeera in particular), and the platforms funded in Turkey; While the first tended to calm down, the second increased perhaps in the line of escalation.

No matter how much the Qatari project seeks to move away from the Turkish project, which was not stipulated in the Al-Ula statement, the relationship between the two countries is likely to remain at the same level of momentum over the coming years, and the move will be gradual in line with the process while Qatar regains its role and reposition itself.

Meanwhile,   under the context of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab world, the relationship of Qatar with Turkey is likely to remain the same as long as President Erdogan continues to be in power, it is likely that there will be a de facto divergence between Qatar and the Turkish project. In general, the success of reconciliation with Qatar will reduce Turkey’s ability, financially, politically and in the media, to continue its interventions in the Arab countries, especially Libya, Iraq and Syria.

The fourth and final file is related to normalization with Israel; Reconciliation may be the best Gulf cover for a settlement in this file, as Qatar’s relations with Islamists provide it with an extremely hostile propaganda network. Qatar heavily employed this network against its Gulf rivals during the crisis period. These networks increased hostility after the UAE and Bahrain signed normalization agreements with Israel. In light of reconciliation, Qatar can help pass the file of normalization within the entire Gulf framework and unify the line of Gulf capitals with Tel Aviv regarding the future regional balance in the face of Iran.

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