By Sohail Mahmood
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt signed a “solidarity and stability” agreement towards ending the diplomatic rift with Qatar at a summit in Saudi Arabia. They agreed to restore full diplomatic and trade ties with Doha at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the kingdom on January 5, 2021.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia on January 4, 2021 had announced the restoration of ties with Qatar and the reopening of land borders with Qatar. Egypt followed.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar signed a new agreement on January 5, 2021, signaling a possible end to longstanding tensions between the two countries since the summer of 2017. Qatar. These developments had taken place after the three-and-a-half-year dispute which saw the Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties and impose a land, sea, and air blockade on the Gulf state.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain had issued the famous 13 demands of Qatar, which included that Qatar dismantle its news media agency, Al Jazeera, and scale back its diplomatic relationship with Iran. The quartet also accused Qatar of backing terrorist organizations and had insisted to end its links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar had balked at these demands. and none of them were implemented.
Now the quartet has lifted the boycott against Qatar which in response has frozen all state-related legal action
The GCC leaders on January 5, 2021 GCC have signed the “AlUla Declaration” reaffirmed their commitment to achieving cooperation, interdependence, and integration between their countries in all fields. The declaration calls for GCC unity and enhancing its regional and international role as a one economic and political bloc that helps achieve security, peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.
The declaration stated that the Gulf citizens pin many hopes that the summit would restore joint work to its normal track and strengthen the bonds of friendship and fraternity between the region’s peoples. [i]
It said that Egypt’s signing of the declaration confirms the closer fraternal relations binding Egypt and the GCC countries. The communique says that coordination, cooperation, and integration among the GCC countries serve the lofty goals of the Arab nation.
On military integration the communique highlights the importance of strengthening inter-GCC military integration under the supervision of the joint defense council, the supreme military committee and united military command to confront challenges, in line with the GCC’s joint defense agreement and security convention.[ii]
It reaffirms the need to enhance the GCC’s regional and international role by unifying political stances between its countries and developing strategic partnerships with regional and international organizations to serve common interests.
The summit reiterated the GCC leaders’ keenness to reinforce the GCC’s gains, achieve aspirations of Gulf citizens and overcome all obstacles facing the march of joint GCC action.
It calls to benefit from Saudi Arabia’s successful experience in presiding the G20, use of advanced tools, including stimulating economy, engaging the business sector and civil society organizations as well as empowerment of women and young people in economic development, and encourage initiatives in digital economy.[iii]
The summit also calls for strengthening governance, transparency, accountability, integrity and anti-corruption tools through joint Gulf action with all GCC bodies, offices and specialized organizations, and taking advantage of what was agreed within the G20 and the Riyadh Initiative on cooperation in investigations and prosecution of cross-border corruption cases, as corruption has a significant impact on economic growth, sustainable development and mutual trust between governments and peoples.
On the COVID-19 pandemic, the communique calls for the full implementation of King Salman’s vision regarding the completion of economic unity and joint defense and security systems as well as formulating a unified foreign policy.
It also calls for the completion of the Gulf customs union and common market and achieving the full economic citizenship.[iv]
The final statement noted that the GCC citizens pin hopes on Alula Communique to restore joint action and reinforce the bonds of fraternity and solidarity between the peoples of the region. It added that Egypt’s signing of the communique comes to emphasize the fraternal relations between GCC states and this Arab country, based on the GCC’ statutes purporting that full coordination and cooperation between the GCC states do serve the supreme goals of the Arab nation.
The communique pointed out that the COVID pandemic has evidenced what can be accomplished when world countries cooperate with each other, citing in this respect the unprecedented achievements made by the G20 Summit during its convening under the presidency of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The statement noted that confronting the COVID pandemic and addressing its fallout necessitates reinforcing
GCC joint action as follows:[v]
1) Full and precise implementation of the vision of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz, which has been endorsed during the GCC Supreme Council in its 36th session in 2015 as per an integrated and reliable schedule and accurate follow-up. This includes consolidating the fundamentals of economic unity and joint defense and security system while formulating a unified foreign policy.
2) Activating the role of the Gulf Centre for the Prevention and Combatting of Diseases, which has been set up during this summit based on the vision of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque, while seeking to empower it in support of coordinating a Gulf joint action in facing the Covid disease and other pandemics.
3) Fulfilling the requirements of the GCC Customs Union and Gulf Common Market in addition to achieving full economic integration in a way that ensures the right for all GCC citizens to work, move, and invest across the GCC states while getting equal education and healthcare services. This includes the establishment of the GCC Railway Network, and Food and Water Security Network; encouraging joint ventures; and nationalizing Gulf investments.
4) Utilizing the successful channels of cooperation reached during the Saudi presidency of the G20 Summit across all fronts, including provision of economic incentives; engaging the business sector and civil society institutions; ensuring women’s and youth empowerment in economic development efforts; and encouraging digital economy-related initiatives while entrusting the GCC General Secretariat to follow up plans and programs developed in this respect in cooperation with specialist consultancies.
5) Developing technical capacities across all government departments, including AI to ensure expeditious and efficient execution of services and procedures in addition to developing educational syllabi, healthcare, and e-commerce together with enhancing cooperation between the GCC institutions and Digital Cooperation Organization launched in 2020.
6) Enhancing governance, transparency, accountability, impartiality, and counter-corruption through Gulf joint action while benefiting from the outcome of the G20 Summit and the Riyadh Initiative on cooperation in investigation regarding cases of global corruption and chasing culprits owing to the significant impact of corruption on economic development, sustainable development, and mutual trust between governments and peoples.
7) Strengthening defense integration between GCC states under the supervision of the Gulf Joint Defense Council, the Supreme Military Committee, and the Unified Military Command to confront recent challenges.
8) Continuing the steps taken by the GCC and the G20 Summit under the presidency of Saudi Arabia to confront the COVID pandemic and mitigating its fallout on the local, regional, and international levels, including standing by poor countries in areas of healthcare and economy.
9) Enhancing the regional and international role of the GCC in unifying political stances and developing strategic partnerships between Gulf states on the one hand and other world countries and regional and international groups and organizations on the other.
After Biden’s election win last November, resolving the Gulf dispute became a lead priority. It could be cast as a trust building measure to the incoming president; something to take to the table when talk turns to Iran, with whom the Trump regime had avowedly tussled.
The Guardian article “Qatar and Saudi Arabia breakthrough is more exhaustion the compromise” aptly puts it as:[vi]
Wounds, however, remain raw. And it remains to be seen whether rallying against a common foe – Iran will be enough to overcome a spat that is seen in some regional and global circles as pointless and damaging. A fear remains that the detente may only tape over a fault line that has deepened over three unnecessary years.
Undoubtedly, the agreement is a significant breakthrough has been reached in Qatar’s dispute with the Arab quartet.
What led to the development?
The move was largely made with the US President-elect Joe Biden in mind who takes office in two weeks. Earlier, Biden has warned he would press Saudi Arabia over its human rights record and its bloody war in Yemen. The development may also mark a shift for President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda as both countries are U.S. allies in the Gulf region.[vii] The GCC leaders also saw the agreement as a gift to President Trump. [viii]
USA, to its credit, is behind this development. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, and White House adviser was also present at the signing. The Trump administration originally supported Saudi Arabia in its actions against Qatar but then began attempting to nurture an agreement shortly after. This development is a sign that Saudi Arabia is making way for Biden, who is likely to take much stronger positions with Saudi Arabia than the Trump administration did.
In the past few months, it was Kushner, who had been assigned by President Donald Trump, his father-in-law, to work on the Gulf rift. He had an important role to play. Kushner had pleaded with the Amir of Qatar and MBS about ending the boycott. Remember Kushner is close to MBS and he was invited by the crown prince to be Kushner present in the summit in Saudi Arabia. Kushner can be seen in the room in televised footage as MBS delivered the opening speech. Also, Qatar has an extraordinarily strong historic relationship with US. The US has an excessively big military base in Qatar. Apparently, GCC is closing ranks against Iran. Recall the very recent agreements between Israel and Arab states. Also, Saudi Arabia wants to end the feud with Qatar behind it before Biden takes office. Undoubtedly, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE leadership are trying to seek better relations with the incoming Biden administration.
Saudi Arabia’s MBS special relationship with the White House through Kushner is about to end in two weeks left. President Trump was pushing this agreement as he wants some sort of a victory now. He has achieved it somehow.
What is Next?
This is the first strep today, though historic in nature. Despite, UAE’s misgivings with Qatar, it will also fall in line. Remember UAE is trying to buy American F-35 aircraft, the best in the world, and is being opposed by Israel and some American Congress politicians. Trump will promise UAE to get the aircraft ASAP. Though in two weeks it cannot happen, the US can promise to deliver desired military equipment, other than the coveted F-35 aircraft. It remains to be seen what UAE gets in return by USA. Remember UAE relations with the USA are also remarkably close much like Saudi and Qatar. the Gulf region is firmly in the American camp and will remain so in the foreseeable future.
The boycott was a farce to begin with and its end was a given. Today is just the beginning of the end of Qatar boycott and it will happen soon. Bahrain will follow Saudi as it is dependent on it so is Egypt, and UAE’s misgivings with Qatar, very real, will be somehow handled by USA and Saudi jointly. Remember MBZ of UAE and MBS are remarkably close friends and UAE supports Saudi a lot in its various designs
UAE and US have a close economic relationship.
UAE’s wealth is based on the country’s vast oil and gas reserves. It is the United States’ single largest export market in the Middle East and North Africa region. Also, more than 1,000 U.S. firms operate in the country. Many more US corporations are attracted by UAE’s, strong logistics and transport industries. They employ the UAE. as a regional headquarters from which to conduct business throughout the region Africa, and parts of Asia. and even beyond. Most importantly, this development has happened because of the policy preferences of the incoming Biden administration in the US on January 20, 2020. Thus, the end of boycott is good for both the GCC and the USA.
As expected, Egypt signed a reconciliation agreement with Qatar at the GCC summit. Thus, the reconciliation between the Arab quartet countries [Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain] and Qatar has begun. The agreement would consolidate Arab action in the face of regional challenges, it said, and hailed efforts for reconciliation between the Arab quartet and Qatar, especially by Kuwait.
More important is Iran connection with Qatar. The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has congratulated Qatar after the announcement of the GCC deal. Remember, during the last three years and more Qatar build good relations with Iran and Turkey because of the boycott. A lot has happened during this time.
Most probably, Qatar will continue relations with both, despite US and GCC pressures. Over the last more than 3 years, Qatar, to its credit, had managed to learn to live with the blockade and had discovered efficient ways of sustaining its economy and managing its affairs. Resultingly, Qatar had become a very spirited nation.[ix]
It is unclear how much Qatar will revert to its previous trade ties with the blockading countries after establishing new networks over the past three years. Economic relations with countries such as Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan have strengthened significantly since 2017.
The Qataris are welcoming the new development to end boycott. However, they are very distrustful of the Saudis, UAE, and Bahrain because of their bad experience. Remember, the Qatar boycott was a farce to begin with. The demands made by the quartet on Qatar were simply outrageous, indeed. since the Qatar and Iran share a giant gas field. More importantly, Qatar does not believe the nuclear deal signed in 2015 should be ended. Handling Qatar will be a challenge for the coming Biden administration.
On January 6, 20121 during its weekly meeting chaired by the king, the Saudi Cabinet said the “Kingdom’s policy is based on a firm approach, its foundation is to achieve the supreme interests of the GCC and Arab countries, and its future plans and ambitious development vision — Vision 2030.”
It also said the Kingdom prioritizes strengthening Arab and Islamic cooperation to serve the security and stability of the region. The Council of Ministers said the Kingdom stresses the “importance of uniting efforts to advance the region and face the challenges that surround it, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear program.” The Cabinet cited Iran’s “destructive” behavior and support of proxies that “adopt terrorist and sectarian activities aimed at destabilizing security and stability in the region and the world.[x]
Eventually, the Biden administration is going to return to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal which President Trump left in 2018. This would be a correct move on its part. However, the leadership of the GCC, except for Qatar, is genuinely concerned about this possibility. The Saudis have expressed their anxiety time and again on the subject. The Saudis are leading the campaign against Iranian expansionist agenda in the region and consider it as an existential threat. Many other Gulf countries agree with the Saudi stance, some less, some more. The summit was also an attempt at closing ranks against the Iranian foe.
An American rapprochement with Iran is not on the cards, yet as the Biden administration has also expressed concerns about Iranian expansionism in the region. Return to the Iranian nuclear deal is because it was a successful multilateral effort that largely worked until the US pulled out. Much discussion is taking place on the subject now. We must wait and see what happens on the matter as the Biden administration changes direction somewhat. It remains to be seen how and when the coming Biden administration makes the required changes in its foreign policy for the region. What is certain is that the extreme closeness of the White House with Saudi Arabia is going to be over. Also, extreme hostility with Iran will end.
[vi] Martin Chulov, “Qatar and Saudi Arabia breakthrough is more exhaustion than compromise”, The Guardian, January 5, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/05/qatar-and-saudi-arabia-breakthrough-is-more-exhaustion-than-compromise, accessed January 6, 2021
[vii] Elana Moore. “Saudi Arabia And Qatar Lower Tensions In US-Backed Agreement”, npr.org, January 5, 20217, https://www.npr.org/2021/01/05/953737140/saudi-arabia-and-qatar-lower-tensions-in-us-backed-agreement, accessed January 6, 2021
[viii] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/world/middleeast/gulf-qatar-blockade.html, accessed January 6, 2021
[ix] Gulf reconciliation agreement: What we know so far, Aljazeera, January 6, 2021
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/6/blockading-nations-drop-13-demands-on-qatar-sources, accessed January 6, 2021
[x] Arab News, January 5, 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1787821/saudi-arabia, accessed January 6, 2021
Sohail Mahmood is a political analyst.