Saudi Arabia and allies to restore ties with Qatar

Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have agreed to restore ties with Qatar in a significant breakthrough that is set to end more than three years of disunity and rancour within the ranks of the west’s Gulf allies.

“All the outstanding [issues], whether returning of diplomatic relations, flights, will go back to normal,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, told reporters. “It’s a very important breakthrough that we believe will contribute very much to the security of all our nations in the region.”

He was speaking after Gulf leaders signed a declaration at a summit held in Saudi Arabia hours after Riyadh announced it was lifting its air, land and sea embargo on Qatar. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt are now expected to follow suit, bringing relief to the Gulf’s biggest crisis in years. It is unclear what the timeline will be.

The rift erupted in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a regional embargo of Qatar, severing diplomatic and transport links with their Gulf neighbour, which they accused of sponsoring Islamist groups and being too close to Iran.

Doha denied the allegations, and the dispute was deadlocked until Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stepped up his efforts to resolve the crisis, backed by Kuwaiti and US mediation, late last year.

The dispute had reverberated across the Arab world as other states felt compelled to pick sides, and stymied the Trump administration’s efforts to forge an alliance against Iran and isolate the Islamic republic. Shunned by its neighbour, Qatar, which hosts the US’s biggest military base in the region, forged closer ties with Iran. It also cemented the Gulf state’s ties with Turkey as the latter accelerated the deployment of troops to a base in Doha in a muscular show of support for Qatar.

Prince Mohammed on Tuesday welcomed Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, to the summit with a warm hug as the Qatari leader made his first visit to the kingdom since the embargo was imposed.

But analysts warned it will take time to heal the deep wounds opened by the rift.

“You could say Qatar has won,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based professor of politics, even if the Saudi-UAE alliance will take some comfort from having shone a light on Qatar’s regional policies. “The cost of fighting was too high — there is a realisation now that this is the black sheep of the family and we just have to put up with it,” he added. “These have been the worst three-and-a-half years in the history of the GCC [Gulf Co-operation Council].”

After imposing the embargo in 2017, Riyadh and its allies issued a wide-ranging list of demands, including closing the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera media network, curbing relations with Iran and shutting a military base operated by Turkey.

None of these conditions have been met.

Analysts said Qatar, long considered a maverick by its neighbours, was unlikely to pivot from its longstanding policies of supporting popular movements in the Islamic world, including groups linked to Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Qatar could, nonetheless, make some concessions, the analysts added, such as limiting contacts with the Brotherhood and toning down the more aggressive aspects of al Jazeera’s reporting. Al Jazeera has been critical of Saudi Arabia and UAE attempts to undermine democratic forces in the Arab world.

A person briefed on the mediation process said that after Saudi Arabia lifted its air, land and sea embargo, Doha was expected to freeze state-related legal cases launched against its rivals at institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, far left, welcomes Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Tehran in January 2020. Doha has forged closer ties with Iran after being shunned by its neighbours © Iranian Presidency Office/AP

The rift also severely undermined economic cohesion in the Gulf, disrupting trade and investment flows, separating families and putting up barriers against regional business activity.

In the wake of the embargo, Qatar was forced to repatriate more than $20bn from overseas deposits to shore up its financial system. The import-dependent nation formed new trading routes, which caused it to deepen trade ties with Iran and depend on the Islamic republic’s airspace.

Rory Fyfe of Mena Advisors, a consultancy, said while reconciliation boosts regional harmony, the economic benefits are “marginal” as Qatar is unlikely to revert to previous Saudi and UAE networks that would leave it vulnerable to another embargo.

Still, businesses in Dubai, which had previously acted as an important conduit to Doha and attracted high-spending Qatari visitors, are hopeful for gains. “On a commercial basis, we will see gains in the UAE once those restrictions are lifted, particularly in Dubai,” said Taufiq Rahim, a senior fellow at New America, a think-tank.

Qatar’s relations with Turkey, which welcomed the detente and said that it hoped for a “comprehensive and lasting” settlement, could yet be a stumbling block in negotiations to finalise a definitive end to the spat.

Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia has expressed concerns about Turkey’s role in regional affairs, even launching an informal boycott of Turkish goods last year. The schism has been most apparent in Libya, where the UAE and Turkey back rival proxies in a civil war.

Doha’s relations with Ankara have been bolstered by the GCC dispute, said Tarik Yousef, director of Brookings Doha Center, a think-tank.

“Their robust military co-operation provides the answer to a host of security concerns which are to persist after a resolution, including the ongoing crisis in Libya,” he said. “On the other hand, Ankara has a deep interest in normalising relations with Riyadh — and Qatar can play an effective role in mediating growing bilateral tensions between the two countries.”

Ultimately, said one person briefed on the UAE’s thinking, the boycott had run its course. “People will move on.”

Additional reporting by Andrew England in London and Laura Pitel in Ankara

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