In recent weeks, there have been many reports regarding the possibility of a thaw between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, on the other. The process became public in mid-November, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain confirmed they would participate in this year’s Gulf Cup football tournament in Qatar, reversing an earlier decision to boycott the event. The previous Arabian Gulf Cup, two years ago, was originally scheduled to be held in Qatar, but was moved to Kuwait in the aftermath of the embargo imposed on Qatar six months earlier (see below). This year, the Saudi team flew directly to Qatar, as did two planeloads of Bahraini fans (in the event, the Saudis edged the Qataris – who had earlier beaten the Emiratis – out of the finals, which were won by Bahrain).
Above: Qatari defender Tarek Salman (L) is marked by Saudi midfielder Nawaf al-Abed (R) during the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup semi-final between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Doha on December 5, 2019. (Photo by MUSTAFA ABUMUNES/AFP via Getty Images)
On December 3, Saudi King Salman invited Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh on December 10. In the end, Sheikh Tamim did not attend himself, as some observers had expected, but raised the level of representation and sent his Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani. Last year he was invited, and sent his Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, after in 2017 he had attended the summit in Kuwait, but other states sent low-level representatives.
These changing chords in the dynamic come two years after Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain – joined by Egypt and five other Muslim countries – cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017, and banned all direct air, sea and land travel to the peninsular emirate. The rationale for instigating this crisis was Qatar’s alleged covert relations with Iran, and more to the point, its explicit support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but stemmed, too, from UAE and Saudi Arabia’s anger at Qatar, since 2011, for not aligning itself with Riyadh’s ambitions of leading the Arab monarchies in supporting the existing order, and turning back the wave of popular uprisings across the Arab world (which enjoyed open sympathy and support from al-Jazeerah, Qatar’s highly influential TV).
Qatar withstood the embargo well, and used it as an opportunity to develop domestic industries and capabilities. The embargo has also pushed Doha into an even closer strategic alliance with Turkey, which has expanded its military footprint in Qatar (it currently has some 5,000 troops stationed there). The competition between the opposing Sunni axes has significantly influenced regional dynamics in Libya, Sudan, the Horn of Africa and Red Sea littoral, the Sahel and even the Palestinian arena. It has also led to ferocious propaganda, social media and cyber war between the sides.
It is worth noting that the venue of the December 10th summit was changed in recent weeks from Abu Dhabi to Riyadh, perhaps to make high-level Qatari participation more palatable to both Qatar and UAE. UAE is seen as the architect of Qatar’s isolation and of the intra-Gulf cold war in the past two years, and is reportedly less committed at this time to positive engagement than Saudi Arabia (Egypt, with a long history of tension with Qatar and a deep suspicion of any friend of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also reportedly unenthusiastic about the possibility of a thaw).
The Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, visited Riyadh discreetly in November. Some reports say he stated at the time that his country is willing to sever its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most important of the thirteen demands raised by the boycotting states (which also include closing Al-Jazeera and affiliates, downgrading ties with Iran and closing a Turkish military base). A Saudi official said in November that Qatar has taken some steps toward resolving tensions, including passage of a law against financing terrorism. Early this month, Minister al-Thani confirmed the existence of negotiations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, mediated by Kuwait. Earlier, Qatar’s prime minister attended an emergency GCC summit in Mecca in Saudi Arabia after the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in May: this was the highest-level direct contact between the adversaries since the embargo began. In addition, all six GCC interior ministers met in Oman in November.
Alongside the indications of a lessening of the intra-Gulf tension, there are other developments which still point the other way:
- The anti-Qatari “Quartet” – UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt – on December 2 defended their ban on flights to Qatar at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, saying that Doha continues to support terrorism and militancy and to back groups which are destabilizing Arab countries.
- There are reports that members of the Qatari royal family oppose any concessions in exchange for easing the embargo.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Qatar on 26 November, to attend the fifth meeting of the Qatar-Turkey Higher Strategic Committee. He announced completion of the construction of a second military base in Qatar. Some observers see the visit as being aimed at making sure that any Gulf rapprochement will not be at the expense of Turkey.
Behind the re-engagement and easing of tension, is a significant shift in policy by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was indicated by UAE’s reluctance to join the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel in fingering Iran as the culprit in the attacks on Gulf shipping in May, quiet talks during the summer by Emirati officials in Iran on regional developments and maritime security, and its rather sudden disengagement from the four-year war against the Houthis in Yemen.
The UAE’s foreign minister said recently that “further escalation [with Iran] at this point serves no one and we strongly believe that there is room for collective diplomacy to succeed”. The UAE, and especially Dubai as a major port and transportation hub, fear the possible direct effects of hostilities with Iran, as well as the chilling effect of conflict on its export- and service-based economy, including higher maritime insurance rates. The UAE, as noted, does not seem to be much driven to reconcile with Qatar. Saudi Arabia has also been reported to be conducting indirect contacts with Teheran (reportedly through Pakistan, Iraq, and perhaps Kuwait), and, following the retrenchment of its Emirati ally, is also attempting to wind up its Yemeni adventure.
The changes in both states’ direction is largely the result of their internalization of the unwillingness of the U.S. Administration to forcefully counter Iranian aggressive behavior in the region – specifically, in the wake of the downing of an American UAV and the attack on Aramco facilities. They therefore may perceive a need to pursue some form of détente with Teheran to avoid becoming a direct target of Iranian hybrid warfare and/or uncontrolled military escalation.
In this context, improving ties with Qatar might be a case of “clearing the decks” before a new stage in Gulf dynamics. This may include trying to tighten GCC member coordination on the Iranian issue (and corralling Qatar, but also Kuwait and Oman, who are also “off-message” on Iran), as well the possibility of utilizing Doha’s ties with Iran for messaging, mediation and the lowering of tension.
Saudi Arabia has come to see continued open enmity with Qatar as counterproductive. It may also want to promote regional quiet in the run-up to the massive Aramco IPO starting this week (worth tens of billions of dollars), the keystone in Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s ambitious reform projects. Riyadh may also see a thaw as a way to improve its international image, tarnished by the Yemeni war, the Jamal Khashoggi assassination and highly publicized crackdown on dissidents.
It is not to be expected that rapprochement will be quick and dramatic. There is still a great deal of bad blood between the sides and, as noted, UAE does not seem to be totally on board. The return of Qatar may well be a gradual process of re-engagement and dialogue: it and Saudi Arabia seem to be looking for formulas which will allow them each to claim that the process serves their sovereign interests, while avoiding humiliating the other. Expect to see the war of narratives and invective dialing down, and the limitations on movement gradually dissipating.
Ramifications for Israel
From Israel’s point of view, a possible rapprochement is a mixed bag. Israel has reasonable relations with almost all the GCC states (with the notable exception of anti-Israeli Kuwait), and an easing of the blockade of Qatar will probably facilitate Israeli business and covert diplomatic activity in the region. It may also lead over time to an attenuation of the alliance of Doha with Turkey, which, while it is not Israel’s main rival in the region, is certainly a secondary one, as long as Erdogan is at the helm. This may perhaps curtail Ankara’s efforts to extend its regional reach, to entrench itself in the Gulf, and to embroil itself in every regional conflict. These efforts include the recent agreement between Turkey and the Sarraj government in Libya on their Exclusive Economic Zones, at the expense of Greece, and to the detriment of Israel, since it is aimed at blocking the possibility of an Israeli-Cypriot-Greek pipeline to Europe. A return by Qatar to the Arab fold may well be predicated, even if not formally, on a lessening of its support for radical elements in the region, including Hamas (as part of the Muslim Brotherhood), a development which has both positive and negative repercussions for Israel. The divided Gulf has also pushed Qatar, and ostensible neutrals Oman and Kuwait, closer to Iran.
On the other hand, a divided Arab world has afforded Israel more opportunities for shared interests with various players, and for leveraging ties with one side to improve ties with another. One component in the Saudi willingness to re-engage with Qatar may be their desire to create a regional gas network in the Gulf, linking the kingdom – which has ambitious plans to develop its gas reserves, and to import gas to replace oil in domestic use – with UAE and Qatar, and later expand it to include Egypt and Jordan. Such a new bloc could theoretically compete with the development of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which binds Israel with Egypt and Jordan, as well as with Greece and Cyprus.
To the extent that the rapprochement in the GCC states indicates a possible inclination towards relaxing tensions with Iran – keeping in mind that Kuwait and Oman, as well as Egypt and Jordan, not to mention Dubai, have tried for some times to distance themselves from the anti-Iranian policies of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – it may threaten Israel’s anti-Iranian regional alignment. This, coupled with the perceived American disinclination to back up its robust declaratory policy on Iran with military measures (and the not unimaginable possibility that President Trump may yet engage with Iran, as he hinted again after the recent prisoner exchange), could mean a net loss of Israeli leverage and deterrence vis-à-vis Iran. It could also roll back some of the significant diplomatic gains Israel has had in recent years vis-à-vis the Gulf states, who seemed to need Israel more than they disliked it.
Israeli attempts to thwart or slow a Gulf thaw, or public expressions of opposition to the trend, would be misguided, and would certainly be taken amiss. However, Israel could and should take some necessary measures to anticipate all its Gulf interlocutors, trying to expand the zone of shared interests to other areas, economic, technological and agricultural. It needs, as well, to stress in these contacts Iran’s continued threats to its neighbors and its weakened regional stature (on the background of challenges at home, in Iraq and in Lebanon), in an effort to retard concrete steps to ameliorate tensions with Iran. It needs to repair its relations with Jordan and maintain its strong ties with Egypt, to avoid possible second-order effects of Gulf rapprochement. Most importantly, it needs to make clear to its allies in Washington the harm done in the region, and the potential for more harm, by the perception of American policy disarray, weakness and withdrawal.
First published 15 December by Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security