The Qatar-Saudi Arabia breakthrough is more fatigue than consensus.


The Gulf Cooperation Council summit was dominated by talk of fraternal solidarity rather than lessons.

The meeting between the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, on Tuesday was hailed as a breakthrough that brought together two feuding parties that were finally able to resolve their differences, but when the two leaders met at the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the Al-Ula area of southern Saudi Arabia, there was no mention of their differences. The détente seemed to be born more of fatigue than agreement, the talk more of fraternal solidarity than lessons learned, and the end of it all more of the new U.S. president than regional realpolitik. It is difficult to describe the achievements of the three-year conflict in which Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC removed Qatar from the alliance with a list of apparently unmet demands. The expenditures, economic and political, are not so. If Saudi Arabia shouldered most of the latter, Qatar bore the brunt of the former, but the final toll fell on the very problem that Saudi Arabia-led sanctions were intended to safeguard the unity of the Gulf. The indictment against the tiny Gulf state was lengthy when the ambitious Saudi heir to the throne joined United Arab Emirates leader Mohammed bin Zayed in cracking down on Qatar in late 2017. It and other members of the GCC, as well as Egypt, accused their neighbor of supporting the aspirations of Iran and encouraging Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, a concern of the leaders of the UAE. A growing alliance with Turkey was also seen as a danger, and another demand was listed as removing a Turkish garrison from Qatar.

The recalcitrant neighbor could be placed in his place in Riyadh’s view, and the region would realize that Saudi Arabia was under new leadership and not afraid to so visibly assert itself. For a long time, Qatar, the smallest – and wealthiest per capita – of the Gulf States, had tried to place itself as a mediator on regional problems, a nation that could serve without any responsibility to all parties.

It denied that it should view its ties with Iran and its support for Islamist groups through that lens, and fought back when charges flew from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

It had the reserves to sweat out the blockades and turn to a friend in Ankara-and it did more and more. Qatar and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist-leaning government have become closer than ever in the past three years. They have become the linchpin of an axis against Prince Mohammed in Riyadh, Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi and Egyptian leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, along with remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt living in exile in Turkey, who see their regimes as more associated with Arab nationalism and see the rival alliance as a strategic threat.

State media helped deepen fault lines in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha, and animosity overcrowded any chance of reconciliation-especially when Turkey and Saudi Arabia faced off after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by aides to the Saudi Royal Court in Istanbul. Riyadh made attempts last year to crack the ice by welcoming the Foreign Minister of Qatar and hosting the national soccer team. But the ousting of Donald Trump, a staunch Saudi supporter, from the White House and the eventual arrival of Joe Biden, who GCC leaders fear would take a softer line on an even bigger enemy, Iran, took more distant events to force a breakthrough. After Biden’s election victory last November, settling the Gulf conflict became a top priority.

For the new president, it could be seen as a confidence-building measure; something he can bring to the table when talks turn to Iran, for whom the Trump regime is an avowed enemy. Qatar, which is planning to host the 2022 World Cup, could forgo more headaches and benefit from a diplomatic reset as well.

Further headaches and a diplomatic reset would help Qatar, which is preparing to host the 2022 World Cup. The precondition for rapprochement is that it does not allow compromises to be made.

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