January 25, 2021

Rapprochement in the Gulf Dispute

Several efforts have been made by many interlocutors to diffuse the crisis, but one has to give credit to the consistent and unrelenting interventions by the Americans.
Keywords: Gulf | US | Conflict | Trump | Qatar | Legacy | Kuwait | Dispute | Abraham Accord | Turkey | Biden | Arab League | GCC | Geopolitics | UAE 

On 5 June 2017 , Saudi Arabia , UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had decided to sever diplomatic ties with the tiny but rich Emirate of Qatar and enforced a severe blockade that by all counts has been mutually harmful at least at the People to People and economic levels . This was not the first time. One had witnessed the same in 2014 when diplomatic relations were severed. Severe demands including a  List of 13 requirements were made  to Doha for compliance which the Qataris felt was not only humiliating but also compromised their sovereignty. Both sides had some truth to the allegations, and both took high moral grounds in the bargain. Efforts by the US, Kuwait and Oman were stymied by the tough positions on the two sides and the ‘who blinks first’ approach. 

Several efforts have been made by many interlocutors to diffuse the crisis, but one has to give credit to the consistent and unrelenting interventions by the Americans. President Trump’s Senior Adviser Jared Kushner again visited the region this week in a last-ditch effort to resolve the crisis. It was not only a symbolic attempt but a strategic requirement for the US as it hosts its largest  base Al Udaid in Qatar for its operations in the region. Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain its key partners as well as arms clients and crucial for its foreign policy objectives and the containment of Iran. GCC itself wants peace for their own security. For the US, security of Israel is a paramount concern and by filling the gaps between the GCC countries the US would ensure it. More importantly all the countries in the region, including Iran though somewhat less so, are concerned about the policies and preferences of Biden Administration since human rights adherence would surely be a point to contend with for the gulf monarchies. Hence the Trump Administration wishes to seal the deal before it leaves the office on January 20. They also want to show that Trump is still in the reckoning and defies the logic of a lame duck President even if some would argue that he will leave a “toxic legacy”. Logically, Biden would be happy if this infructuous dispute is out of the way.

Earlier in the week the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister announced that a discussion was “fruitful’ and a breakthrough in the dispute was imminent which was endorsed both by the Saudi and Qatari Foreign Ministers even though cautiously. All admitted that much progress has been made. Meanwhile, all GCC countries continued to work together in the regional framework to address broader issues. Recently when the Abraham Accords were signed between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel with the US as mediator, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Al Thani said that it was a sovereign decision of those states. It also went along with the Arab League. On its part Doha has reasonably close relations with Tel Aviv and like for Riyadh implicit relations serve the Qatari interests better than explicit diplomatic engagement. Both nations continue to champion the Palestinian cause. In view of their FIFA 2022, Qataris have invited and played against the Israeli teams and sports diplomacy is in full swing. As for the US and Israel Qatar’s close relationship with Hamas is also user friendly as President Rivlin profusely thanked the Qatari government and their Special envoy for facilitating a ceasefire with Gaza and Hamas around the time that the Abraham Accords were signed. No doubt Qatar and Saudi/ UAE have been on opposing sides on Libya and Iran, but they did cooperate in Syria and could again be partners in its reconstruction.

UAE also maintains reasonably good relations with Tehran even though it is not very sanguine about the thaw in the GCC dispute unless all the demands are met. Both Qatar and UAE expressed dismay at the assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizade as Iran maintains  strategic patience even though verbal duels are aplenty. For the UAE, Ankara has been a bigger problem but efforts have been made to find a modus vivendi between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Israel have also begun to talk yet again as Ankara and Tel Aviv have shown in the Nagorno -Karabakh conflict where their fire power and drone superiority proved decisive in favour of Azerbaijan.

Despite public posturing there is a certain collaborative bandwidth which underlines that any intense conflagration in the region will be disastrous for all. This would be far more lethal now as all economies are undergoing the devastating impact of Covid -19, economic downturn and severe recession. Unwarranted mis-adventures and wars in regional theatres like Yemen have further compounded the plight. There is also a feeling that the next US Administration might utilise some of the governance and human rights abuses in the Sunni world (Khashoggi’s killing by Saudi Arabia and the barbaric assault on Yemen )  as it tries to fix and recalibrate the Iranian nuclear deal to its advantage. The Gulf countries and Israel have been thoroughly opposed to the Iran nuclear deal ab initio and will use their lobbying efforts to try scuttling it again. Therefore, it is imperative that low hanging fruits like the Gulf spat are plucked first.

It is unlikely that with the lifting of the blockade, partially or fully, the relationship between Qatar and the Quartet will be fully normalised on a bilateral basis as trust deficit is inherent and dependencies will be avoided. Doha has managed to float on its own by creating its own production and supply chains from outside the vicinity. Turkey has emerged its major strategic partner and shield as Erdogan has shown exceptional ability to manoeuvre and has militarised country’s diplomatic outreach in the regional hotspots. Ankara was quick to deploy a 5000 strong force in Doha by establishing a base apart from coming to its rescue by way of essential supplies. Doha has hugely invested in Turkey.  Hence, reducing Doha’s dependence on Ankara, one of the demands of the Quartet seems unachievable. This may be a reason that the UAE is not so thrilled about the Saudi intentions for reconciliation since it also feels that after the Abraham Accords its own position vis a vis the Biden Administration and Republicans may have been strengthened. Bahrain and Egypt would broadly abide by the Saudi intent. Each one will have their matrix and Venn diagrams of objectives to work out strategic gains and losses in a broader context.

As for disconnection with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and terrorist groups, that have become the nemesis of autarchies and monarchies, Doha has yielded somewhat even though the Erdogan regime remains their biggest benefactor. For Ankara it is possible as Turkey has shown that democracy and Islam can survive in tandem and sustain one another even if Erdogan’s own style of Islamic Ottomanism may not find  great traction abroad. Egypt has a particular fear of and interest in attenuating the MB’s influence  especially as, Post Arab Spring the ghost of Morsi still haunts the psyche of the leadership in Cairo. Another demand, that of  closing down Al Jazeera would be unacceptable; however, its critical content and approach towards other Gulf monarchies may be tamped down. For Doha also it is important that the spat be over for the success of its most significant project FIFA 2022 and also to get out of an avoidable conflictual situation. However, it has been able to manage its international profile rather well especially with the US and other major powers as it is not only a US base but also plays a major role in organising dialogue with Taliban to enable the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. As such a united GCC will serve the US well rather than competing monarchies that might fritter away its strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific where China has emerged as its major competitor.

There is hope that at least preliminary agreement will be reached in a graded manner with the opening of the neighbours’s air space for Qatari flights and gradual normalisation of trade. It seems the regional satraps are being pragmatic as the regional and global geo-political dynamic moves asymmetrically on a different axis. Peace and dialogue are preferable for their own good. Fingers crossed as Saudi FM called an agreement “within reach” but it will be a pity if the sands of hope slip through the fingers this time too. The next GCC meeting may flag it off.

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Anil Trigunayat

Anil Trigunayat

Amb Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.

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