It seems that the reconciliation that was announced at the Gulf summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, between the Arab Quartet countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain) and Qatar is nothing but a repeated chapter of relations between the two parties. With a quick look at the history of the crisis, we can be sure that all parties are still entrenched in their positions, and that nothing new has happened.
The roots of the crisis
The current crisis between Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, and Qatar is an extension of a crisis, which exploded after the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions. At that time, Qatar led a campaign to support The Tunisian revolution and The Egyptian revolution through Al-Jazeera TV, while Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf States took a cautious stance towards the turmoil and chaos in the region. With the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia and the UAE rushed to congratulate the interim president, Adly Mansour, and provided several billions of dollars in aid to Egypt. However, Al-Jazeera TV continued to broadcast critical coverage of the new regime in Egypt, and the situation in the Gulf countries. But the Saudi monarch at that time, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, persuaded the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in November 2013, to sign written pledges granting the Gulf states the freedom to take action against Qatar in the event of its failure to comply. The most important items were stopping support for the Muslim Brotherhood organization, expelling non-citizens affiliated with it from Qatar, not harboring members of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries that disturb Gulf relations, and not providing support to any organization or group in Yemen that works to sabotage internal relations or relations with surrounding countries.
However, with Qatar violating its pledges, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors to Doha in March 2014, due to Qatar’s continued interference in the internal affairs of these countries, and Doha hosted a number of members of the Emirati Islah Association, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and is banned in the Emirates. In November 2014, the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain returned to Qatar, after the end of the crisis after the signing of a new agreement, in which Qatar confirmed commitment to the Riyadh Agreement in November 2013 and the Riyadh Complementary Agreement, in November 2014.
However, Qatar did not abide by the provisions stipulated in the first and second agreement, especially after the death of King Abdullah in 2015, and the political and media rhetoric against Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo increased through its media platforms. King Salman’s visit to Doha in December 2016 was a sign of warmth to relations of the two countries after the tension that resulted from the late King Abdullah’s support for the overthrow of President Morsi, and the classification of the Muslim Brotherhood in the list of terrorist organizations in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.
However, in May 2017, the statements attributed to the Emir of Qatar, where he stressed that Iran is a country with a regional weight that cannot be ignored, renewed the crisis between Riyadh and Doha once again. On June 5, 2017, the crisis reached a turning point, where Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced severing diplomatic relations with Qatar. The Arab Quartet countries cancelled Qatari participation in the Arab coalition in the war in Yemen, closing the land ports with Qatar and preventing Qatari aircraft from flying through the skies of these countries and maritime transport to Qatar through its ports.
From this chronology of the crisis, it appears that the differences between the countries of the Arab Quartet and Qatar are fundamental and not accidental or temporary. According to the Arab Quartet countries, the boycott decision was taken in 2017 for clear reasons, the most important of which is Doha’s activity in supporting terrorist groups and playing subversive roles in hotbeds of tension in the region such as Yemen, Syria and Libya, reflecting political options and alliances that cannot be bridged by consensus or negotiation. In addition, according to the viewpoint of the Arab Quartet countries, the continuation of Doha’s close ties with Iran and Turkey poses security, political and regional risks and threats.
Consequently, the evaluation of the reconciliation announced in the city of Al-Ula should not overlook the history of the crisis and the nature of the differences between the two parties. In addition, we should not overlook the nature of Qatar, which for more than two decades has been tilted to political quarrels and the acquisition of political cards in various conflict areas in a manner not necessarily in harmony with the interests of its neighbors. It should also not be forgotten that, in light of the years of the boycott, there has been tremendous Qatari-Turkish and Qatari-Iranian coordination, to an extent that can be described as strategic.
However, even the manner in which the reconciliation was announced raises many doubts about the seriousness of what happened. From a procedural standpoint, the absence of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s representation of Egypt in Al-Ula summit, were indicative of Egyptian hesitation about the Gulf reconciliation. The absence of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, as well as the king of Bahrain, from the summit was noticeable, indicating that the two countries have reservations about reconciliation with Doha. The whole scene of reconciliation appeared to be part of Saudi and American desire to achieve the goals of Riyadh and Washington.
The question that was not answered during the summit is: What was done regarding the 13 conditions set by the Arab Quartet countries to end the boycott? What happened? Moreover, why did the Arab Quartet countries accept this reconciliation without any declared concession from Qatar, despite the stress on the necessity of implementing the 13 conditions during the past three years? Most likely, the decision to reconcile and accelerate it was the desire of Saudi Arabia, which had asked its three allies not to oppose, on the promise that it would proceed with resolving the dispute with Qatar on their behalf. Cairo’s signals signaled caution, to the point that the Egyptian media was confused in dealing with this sudden and mysterious reconciliation. The Egyptian media was satisfied with repeating official statements, which were also vague and did not provide a definitive answer, as they emphasized support for relations between brotherly Arab countries based on relations based on good intentions and non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries. These loose statements may mean reconciliation, but it does not mean the end of the Qatari-Egyptian dispute, which goes back to Doha’s role in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which is classified in Egypt as a terrorist group.
Therefore, the statement issued by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was clear in this regard, when he stressed that the Gulf summit will not be the end of the consultations on reconciliation. This Egyptian position means that what happened is nothing more than an abstract gesture to prove Cairo’s good intentions towards reconciliation, and nothing more than a compliment to the Saudis, who wanted to achieve a comprehensive reconciliation.
Causes of reconciliation
However, why do the Saudis want reconciliation in this way and so quickly? Saudi Arabia now finds itself, after 3 years, in a position to lose the most from the boycott and with the most to gain from the reconciliation. The return of relations between Riyadh and Qatar is a comeback to the Saudi natural role in leading the Gulf, after the state of division that struck the region. On the other hand, Qatar will stop paying exorbitant fees to Tehran, the No. 1 enemy of Saudi Arabia, in exchange for using its airspace, as the World Cup in 2022 approaches. In addition, Qatar’s return to normal relations with Saudi Arabia will at least ensure its neutralization in any anticipated confrontation of any kind against Iran.
Riyadh wants a truce with Qatar in the coming period that relieves any anticipated pressures it witnesses during the transfer of power from the current Saudi monarch to his crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The kingdom assumes the new American administration will not be the same as the previous one in overlooking Riyadh’s mistakes. In addition, bypassing the boycott phase will benefit Saudi Arabia in devoting itself to its huge economic projects, and enables it to achieve its goals in the current process of rearranging the geopolitical cards in the Middle East.
However, why did the other Quartet countries respond to the Saudi desire? Despite the apparent Egyptian caution and the Emirati reservation, Cairo and Abu Dhabi found in the temporary truce with Qatar a way to ease the expected pressures with the new American administration. According to many observers, the US President-elect Joe Biden is determined to engage significantly in the Middle East in ways and on issues that may cause embarrassment to the countries of the region. At the same time, the Trump administration has been keen to encourage this reconciliation to achieve a political advantage added to its heritage. In addition, it tried to prepare the ground for any confrontation against Iran by creating a state of alignment between its neighbors. Therefore, reconciliation was nothing but a necessity that all parties resorted to in light of stormy regional and international developments, as each side tries to search for a calm of some kind. But once the temporary goals are over, things will return to their initial stage, because what is between the two parties is greater than a passing dispute.
Reconciliation may be the real beginning of a peaceful Middle East only if all parties understand each other’s concerns and make few concessions, so that the intruders miss opportunities to blackmail and exploit them.