- Qatar signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states to mend a 3 and half year old rift.
- This agreement is more of a ceasefire than a peace agreement, and tensions will continue to simmer.
Today, 5 January, in Saudi Arabia, the Arab states leading an embargo of Qatar agreed to drop their embargo in the name of “solidarity and stability.” Qatar, in turn, agreed to drop its cases against its antagonists in multilateral organizations. The agreement is a victory for Qatar, which demonstrated its economic, political and social resilience in the face of concerted pressure from its neighbors. Qatar presumably gave some assurances in exchange, but they were surely a shadow of the extraordinary 13 non-negotiable demands that Saudi Arabia and the UAE issued in June 2017.
The conflict between Qatar and its neighbors was always a strange one, traced to anti-Trump and pro-Iranian statements attributed to the Emir of Qatar that were soon found to be planted by Russian hackers. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, arguing that the comments were the last straw in a long list of Qatari offenses that included support for the Muslim Brotherhood, involvement in terrorism, and close ties with Iran.
The embargo had a dramatic effect on Qatar. It disrupted all manner of trade and investment, complicated construction to support the 2022 World Cup, and divided families in the Gulf. Qatar Airways had to adopt circuitous routes adding hours to some flights in order to avoid flying over Saudi Arabia; not incidentally, it meant Qatar paid Iran hundreds of millions of dollars for overflight rights, concerning the Trump administration. Notably, the embargo did not interrupt the flow of the Dolphin Pipeline, which supplies the UAE with about 2 bcf of gas per day. The pipeline, which is majority owned by the Abu Dhabi government, supports a massive electrical generation and desalination plant.
US President Donald Trump was initially very sympathetic to Qatar’s critics, but over time, broader US government views about the deleterious effects of isolating Qatar led to a more balanced view. Over time, reports circulated that the UAE was less open to compromise than Saudi Arabia. However, within the UAE, Abu Dhabi interests drove the policy toward Qatar, while business interests in Dubai lamented the costs that the policy was imposing on them.
Kuwait has led mediation efforts since the inception of the crisis, initially led by the late Sheikh Sabah. Mid-level State Department efforts have increased in the last year. In recent weeks, White House adviser Jared Kushner made this a high priority for his final days in office. He personally negotiated with the region’s young leaders, and he called in debts from his time in the White House. In particular, he was at the center of a number of decisions that favored Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the last four years, and his family has longstanding business ties with Qatar. As the Gulf states look forward to a potentially less favorable Biden administration, they may be seeking to “clear the decks” of old disputes and present themselves as constructive actors interested in promoting regional stability.
Even so, we should not take today’s step as resolving the underlying issues. A deep wound is still festering: Qatar still feels that its neighbors want to trample on its sovereignty, and the neighbors feel that Qatar remains a reckless actor in regional affairs. Confidence building will take years and will have setbacks.