After more than three years of conflict, Qatar and neighboring countries have signed an agreement aimed at repairing mutual relations. At a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the desert city of Al-Ula in north-western Saudi Arabia, the participants spoke of a new phase of cooperation, also with a view to the threat they perceive from Iran in the region.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) closed the borders with Qatar, located on a peninsula, on June 5, 2017 and imposed a blockade. Egypt followed suit. The states had accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and having too close ties with Shiite Iran. The emirate had rejected the allegations. It was one of the GCC’s worst crises since it was founded in 1981. Kuwait and the USA mediated the dispute.
Crown Prince personally drives the emir for a walk
The Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, hugged each other in Al-Ula when they met for the first time in years. The Crown Prince, who chaired the council meeting, warned of “threats from the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” He also spoke of the “subversive, destructive projects” of Tehran and its allies. After the meeting, the Crown Prince personally drove the emir through Al-Ula in a car. The area is known for archaeological sites, including a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Top representatives from the four other GCC countries – Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – also signed the agreement. Egypt, which was represented by Foreign Minister Samih Shukri in Al-Ula, announced an opening of the airspace for Qatar. Air, land and water traffic from Qatar to Saudi Arabia was opened again on Monday.
Qatar Airways planes had to fly long detours around Saudi Arabia during the conflict, which had created problems for travelers and goods transport. The rich emirate of Qatar reportedly paid more than $ 100 million a year for overflight rights to Iran in the wake of these difficulties. Because of shortages, Qatar had also imported food from Iran and Turkey. In 2022, Qatar is hosting the World Cup and is hoping for millions of visitors from all over the world.
According to experts, the imminent change of government in the USA is a decisive factor for reconciliation. Saudi Arabia and its allies fear that the US will withdraw from the region under President-elect Joe Biden – similar to what it did under Barack Obama. The GCC states are therefore more dependent on themselves and their partners in the region for their security, said Dania Thafer, director of the Gulf International Forum in Washington. This also applies to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival.
Foreign policy success for Trump
The administration of the outgoing US President Donald Trump had increased the pressure on Riyadh and Doha in the past few weeks, reported the news portal Axios. The reconciliation is a gesture to Trump, who had a good relationship with Saudi Arabia and who can book the agreement as a foreign policy success. Mediator Jared Kushner, Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, also attended the meeting in Al-Ula.
The United States maintains one of its most important air bases in Qatar, where more than 10,000 soldiers are stationed. A total of 25,000 other US soldiers are stationed in Kuwait, Bahrain and the Emirates, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation. From Qatar, the US is flying attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
The Gulf crisis is unlikely to end with the agreement. The leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi find it a thorn in the side that Qatar supports Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. The Qatar-funded news channel Al-Jazeera, which critics say gives Islamists too much space, will continue its work. The blockade states had previously demanded, among other things, that Qatar closes the canal and reduces its Iranian relations.