Saudi Arabia and Qatar transfer to finish disaster forward of Biden presidency


The Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan al-Saud speaks to the media on February 21, 2020 in Berlin.

Thomas Trutschel | Photo library | Getty Images

Dubai, United Arab Emirates – Several news outlets have hailed what has been described as a breakthrough in the 3½ year old Gulf Crisis, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear determined to reach a final deal to resolve their impasse.

Kuwaiti officials issued a statement last week saying that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have “reaffirmed their commitment” to finding a solution and protecting “Gulf solidarity”. Kuwait has played a mediating role between the states involved in the dispute since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a diplomatic and political blockade on Qatar in mid-2017, accusing it of supporting Islamic extremism and too close to their regional enemy, Iran. The Qataris denied the allegations.

For some golf watchers, however, the development is not a massive breakthrough, but rather a moderate sign of progress that is still some time in development and there is still a long way to go. And timing matters – just weeks before a Joe Biden administration takes over the helm in the United States

“This is not a breakthrough. It is a step in the right direction,” Andreas Krieg, a longtime golf analyst who has advised the government of Qatar, told CNBC over the phone. “We’ve been here before.”

“Now that Biden comes in, the Saudis are under more pressure to show goodwill and show that they are a constructive partner in the Middle East,” he said.

Washington has consistently urged the alienated parties to end the crisis as it has hampered US interests in the region, strengthened Iran and isolated Qatar, home of Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US military base in the Gulf.

The ruler of Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, will meet with senior adviser to the US President Jared Kushner on December 2, 2020 in Doha, Qatar.

Qatar News Agency | Reuters

Ian Bremmer, founder of the political consultancy Eurasia Group and frequent advisor to the Gulf governments, also described the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia as a reaction to the Biden victory and the growing stalemate with Iran.

The Donald Trump administration has a particularly warm relationship with Saudi Arabia, far more so than the previous Barack Obama administration. Biden is expected to give less priority to the Gulf states and has voiced criticism of the oil-rich Saudi kingdom and promised during a political debate to treat Saudi Arabia as “the pariah they are”.

Given this potential reality, Krieg said, “I think there is an admission there that the Saudis are something they cannot refuse because they are under such immense pressure.”

“The Saudis are just as pragmatic here as the Qataris are pragmatic … There is an understanding that a unified golf front still serves everyone more than spending millions of dollars trying to undermine each other’s positions.”

Many sticking points

Several attempts to find a workable solution have failed, including a pre-blockade agreement in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain first severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, only to restore them within a few weeks. The dispute was based on Qatar’s support for Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and its flagship news channel, Al Jazeera, which expressed support for political Islam and criticism of other Gulf monarchies, all things that the other GCC states considered a grave threat.

The 2017 blockade was, in part, the result of Qatar’s unfulfilled pledges to meet their previous demands, cited by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as well as new demands on Iran, which, ironically, has come much closer to Qatar since the blockade’s isolation.

There are still sticking points for the Saudis, says Bremmer of the Eurasia Group. “Riyadh still wants an agreement with Qatar on Al Jazeera and some other demands. Without that there can be no breakthrough.”

Will everyone come on board?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a meeting with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, on September 19, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Almond Ngan | Reuters

Despite warm words from the Saudis, who even refer to the Qatari as “brothers”, which has not been known since 2017, the real end of the crisis is still a long way off, not least because all the states involved should be on board. In the midst of the UAE’s silence, which many regional experts are citing as the main initiator behind the blockade, a comprehensive solution remains elusive.

“The Gulf reconciliation train will not move a millimeter without knowledge, consent and without the prior blessing of the UAE,” wrote Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist from the Emirates, on Twitter on Sunday. So far there has been no official declaration from Abu Dhabi, whose anti-Arab Spring and anti-Islamist worldview are diametrically opposed to that of Doha.

“The gaps between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have always been simpler than those between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates,” said Michael Stephens, senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “With the added pressure of poor economic performance and concerted pressure from the US, this has brought the sides closer. But the gaps are still larger and confidence is low. This will take time.”

But for Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the kingdom’s royal court, an agreement between the Saudis and Qataris will still “take place”.

“What’s left is more packaging than substance. Of course, time will only tell if the Qataris are honoring their deal as Saudi believes they have failed to honor their previous agreement, but it is still a big step,” he told CNBC.

Whether all Gulf states come on board can decide whether a permanent solution can be achieved.

“The UAE who refuse to admit would make them look ridiculously bad,” said Krieg. “It is entirely feasible for Saudis and Qataris to reconcile on their own.”

The UAE State Department did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

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