Qatar, Saudi leaders hug, end embargo between bitter rivals

Qatar’s ruling emir arrived in Saudi Arabia for a Gulf summit and was greeted with an embrace by the kingdom’s crown prince on Tuesday following an announcement that the kingdom would end its year-long embargo against the small Arab Gulf state.

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was met in the historic city of Al-Ula by the de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two men, who were wearing face masks, embraced on the tarmac.

The Qatari emir’s arrival in Al-Ula was broadcast live on Saudi television as the media in Qatar praised the “warm” embrace ahead of a “landmark” Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit.

The meeting came a day after Kuwait, another GCC member, announced a Saudi decision to open its airspace and border with Qatar following an embargo that began in mid-2017.

The diplomatic breakthrough came after a final effort by the resigning Trump administration and other Gulf states of Kuwait to convey an end to the crisis. It came just before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden when Riyadh supports a new administration that is expected to take a stronger stance towards the kingdom.

Qatar’s only land border has mostly been closed since mid-2017, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain began a blockade of the small but influential Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s border, which Qatar relied on for imports of dairy products, building materials and other goods, opened briefly over the past three years to allow Qataris to Saudi Arabia to carry out the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage.

It was unclear what concessions Qatar had made with regard to a change in its policy.

The Qatari emir has only attended a GCC summit once – when he hosted Kuwait – since the blockade was launched. The next two summits were held in Saudi Arabia and he sent an envoy instead.

Kushner’s diplomatic mix

While the Saudi decision to end its embargo is an important milestone in resolving the gulf, the road to full reconciliation is far from guaranteed. The gap between Abu Dhabi and Doha has been deepest, with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar at sharp ideological odds.

The United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted late Monday that his country was anxious to restore the Gulf unit. However, he warned: “We have more work to do and we are in the right direction.”

The annual summit is also expected to see some sort of relaxation between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia’s path to reconciliation with Qatar comes just weeks after President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, visited the kingdom and Qatar to secure an end to the split. Kushner has been invited to participate in the signing ceremony in Al-Ula.

Normalization with Qatar could give Saudi Arabia time to reach compromises with the Biden administration on other issues, such as the war in Yemen and the potential resumption of the United States with Iran, said Samuel Ramani, a non-resident fellow at the Gulf International Forum.

“Saudi Arabia could frame a partial detente, enabling Qatari civilian aircraft to fly over Saudi airspace and escalate the information war, as evidence of ‘innovation’ in Riyadh,” Ramani said in the announcement.

Turkey, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and other issues

The core has been concerns that Qatar’s close ties with Turkey and Iran have undermined regional security. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates see Qatar and Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood as a security threat and have seen the group as a terrorist organization. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are particularly concerned about Qatar’s close ties with regional enemy Iran.

The simmering tensions boiled over in the summer of 2017, when the four countries announced their fantastic blockade of Qatar and cut off all transport and diplomatic relations with it.

The move separated families who married Qataris and ended years of visa-free travel for Qataris in the Gulf. It also brought Qatar diplomatically closer to Turkey and Iran, both of which rushed Doha’s aid with food and medical supplies during the first days of the embargo. Patriotic fervor swept through Qatar in support of Sheikh Tamim’s determination.

Gas-rich Qatar also took an economic hit from the blockade, and its national airlines were forced to take longer and more expensive routes. It was unclear how the blockade would affect its ability to host the FIFA World Cup 2022.

Requirements for Qatar

The blocking countries made a list of demands on Qatar that included shutting down its flagship Al-Jazeera news network and ending the Turkish military presence in Qatar, which is also home to a large US military base. Qatar has directly rejected the demands and has denied that its support for Islamist groups indicates support for violent extremists.

State-linked media in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar lobbied evil attacks back and forth. Qataris also hinted that the United Arab Emirates was behind the hacking of its state-run news agency in 2017, while the United Arab Emirates’ influential ambassador in Washington saw that his emails were subsequently hacked and leaked.

As a sign that hostilities continue to swim, Qatar protested to the UN Security Council last month that Bahraini warplanes “violated” Qatar airspace in early December. Bahrain has meanwhile accused the Qatari Coast Guard of arbitrarily detaining dozens of fishing vessels from Bahrain.

Ahmed Hafez, a spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, said last week that Cairo supported efforts to reach a resolution respecting “non-interference in domestic affairs” in a clear reference to Qatar’s support from the Muslim Brotherhood. The conflict in Libya is also a contentious issue, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates supporting militias fighting a Tripoli-based bloc backed by Turkey and Qatar.

( Jowharwith AP and REUTERS)