Qatar won the gamble

                    On 5 January not only a new year but a whole new chapter started in the Middle East. Or at least that is how it seems. Emir Tamīm Āl Tānī of Qatar arrived at the Saudi city of al-‘Ulā to take part in the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, which only had only one matter on the agenda, the by now infamous “al-‘Ulā Agreement”. The historic Saudi city with its ruins much resembling Petra hosted the summit, which ended the Gulf crisis going on since June 2017.

            In a short summit with little debate, and with very confusing details, the participants agreed to end the isolation and diplomatic-physical blockade of Qatar, as if nothing had happened all these years. The Saudis talk about a newfound common stance against Iran and its allies. The Emirates with still clear aggravation talk about the rebuilding unity in the Gulf. While the other participants reluctant to seriously comment on the event, which might prove to be a game-changer, the Qataris leave no doubt that they are not about to change their main policies.

            All the accusations aired so loudly three and a half years ago and the infamous 13 demands are all but forgotten now, and thus Qatar clearly scored a major victory. They managed to stand their ground and ended a potentially lethal charge against them without sacrificing anything.

            This, however, raises many questions. What has changed, especially with Saudi Arabia? What was the whole “war” on Qatar good for and what has it accomplished? How will the other parties, both the other blockading states and Iran will deal with the news? Who are the real winners, and who lost the most with this step? What is the main aim for this? And most importantly, how does the rather obscure role of Jared Kushner fit into this, who so far brought nothing but discord to the Arabic fold, and who only has a few days left in office?


The road to reconciliation

            While most Arab news covered the reconciliation in the Gulf rather mildly at best, the Western media and that of the Gulf rejoiced. Yet, reading their analyses and seeing what really took place it is as if they were watching a completely different event.

            Even the way to this summit was anything but easy and there were serious attempts to foil it even before it could take place. We covered the beginnings of this development already in early December.

            It all started on 4 December 2020, when Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign and Information Minister aš-Šayh Aḥmad Nāṣir Muḥammad Āl aṣ-Ṣabāḥ announced that Kuwaiti mediation in the Gulf crisis with substantial American support brought fruit and Riyadh and Doha are ready to reconcile. And then a long diplomatic war started behind the curtains, as it was evident that while Riyadh and especially the Saudi Crown Prince wants to end the conflict at any cost this is not the intention of the other three blockading parties, namely Egypt, Bahrain, and the Emirates. Now we are at the end of the road and it is still not entirely clear whether the Saudis were in fact speaking for the others as well, or solely pursue their own interests. Because official statements by all parties kept contradicting each other. And it showed well that in fact, the other three parties had no intention to end the conflict with Qatar unless Doha yielded to their demands. Which in fact was entirely clear that will never happen. Eventually, reconciliation and the end of this pointless struggle had to come in some way, therefore what Riyadh did was entirely logical. But that posed a dilemma for the other three states. If Saudi Arabia would end the blockade even unilaterally how should they react? Should they continue the struggle, which at that was entirely pointless and risk severing their ties with Riyadh as well, or accept a shameful defeat and go along the process, even though none of their original demands are fulfilled?

            The anxiety was clear from the lack of clear responses and the many subtle indications that Egypt and the Emirates are not ready to reconcile. At least not without some serious symbolic achievement, which Qatar was not ready to give. So a serious push started to sabotage the reconciliation. And it was not without hope, as at least two times before Saudi Arabia was on a similar course, and those attempts were successfully prevented, most probably by the Emiratis. By now we know that this was different, and the strong American push behind the move might make the difference this time. Probably as a last resolve came the small, but a serious quarrel between Qatar and Bahrain. Qatari and Bahrain coast guard forces kept harassing and arresting small boats of the other along their maritime borders, which at that time was happily broadcasted by Emirati channels as Qatari or mutual provocations. As if Bahrain was in the position to wage such “war” on Qatar alone without consent by either Riyadh or Abū Zabī. The matter went as far as provocations by warplanes about which Qatar even turned to the U.N. Security Council. But regardless of all provocations Doha did not take the bait and seemed determined to go through with the reconciliation. Thus showing that Qatar just as much had a great interest in putting an end to the conflict and it was not a peripheral matter for them. To which we should go back, because that proves that Qatar indeed took something more substantial out of the deal, aside from the clear diplomatic triumph.

            By the end of December, however, it became evident that the summit will take place, and that Saudi Arabia will reconcile with Qatar. The blockade will end, though that was announced and later postponed several times before. Therefore the blockade would lose any meaning since Qatar did not yield too much more serious encirclement for three and a held years, it will surely not do now. So it will only be harder for the other three parties to end the battle at the end. That is why it was semi-officially arranged that King Salmān ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz will host the GCC summit in al-‘Ulā, in which all the GCC heads of states will participate, in addition to Egyptian President as-Sīsī. Thus showing that there is a real understanding to end the crisis, not just an acceptance of reality. Things, however, took a different turn at the end.


The great play

            All that happened at the end could be described as a show. A charade, in which little is what it seems. The al-‘Ulā Summit ended, most probably did not solve the crisis.

            The nature of the whole show showed perfectly well by the very first step, when Saudi Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān personally welcomes Emir Tamīm in the airport of al-‘Ulā, as only two great friends could finally meet again. And one knows the personality of Ibn Salmān can witness how uncharacteristic was this artificial cordiality.


            Only a short while later came the summit started. And if there was any doubt about the nature of this meeting, the barely fifteen-minute ceremony was more than clear. First of all by the participants. Saudi Arabia was not represented by King Salmān, but his Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān, who might be the de facto leader of the state, but his position is somewhat precarious.

            Bahrain was also represented by its Crown Prince, Salmān ibn Ḥamad. He is by now is the Prime Minister, but it is his diplomatic debut, as so far in the normalization with Israel it was represented by its Foreign Minister, while in theory in a GCC summit king Ḥamad should have been present.

            Oman, which was never a real participant in the conflict, never severed its diplomatic ties with Qatar, never joined the blockade and since the ascendence of Sultan Haytam pulled even closer to Doha, was also not represented by the ruler. Sultan Haytam sent his Deputy Prime Minister Fahd ibn Maḥmūd to the summit in his stead, who only took a ceremonial role.

            More interesting was the stance of the Emirates. Given his weak health, it was predictable that Emirati President Halīfa ibn Zāyid will not take part in the summit, as by now he rarely appears in public and never leaves the state. But the question was who would Abū Zabī send. As for the Emiratis, the person who represents them tells all about the nature of the meeting and their take on it. Would it be a major event with full diplomatic will the de facto ruler of the state Abū Zabī Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Zāyid should have come. In case of a symbolic major event, like the Abraham Accords in the White House Emirati Foreign Minister ‘Abd Allah ibn Zāyid should have participated. Yet none of them came, and the Emirati delegation was lead by the deputy head of state and Prime Minister Muḥammad ibn Rāšid, the ruler of Dubai. Who has a major role in the state, but he is hardly a man of overwhelming influence on the foreign policy of the state.

            In the end, only two rulers took participated in the al-‘Ulā Summit. The triumphant Emir Tamīm from Qatar, and Kuwaiti Emir Nawwāf al-Aḥmad al-Ğābir aṣ-Ṣabāḥ. Since, at least officially Kuwait was the mediator state, which achieved the reconciliation it was only natural that Emir Nawwāf took part in the summit. Especially that he himself had a major role in the mediation during the last years. To a great extent, it was his project.

            And there were the other great guests. The summit and the reconciliation ceremony were attended by Jared Kushner as a guest of honor, though he made no speech. All parties claim that he himself had a decisive role in the process, yet it is somewhat curious why was this event so important for him to attend personally, now that he only has a few weeks left. And the American administration otherwise seems to be far from the scene, as Trump has clearly bigger problems to deal with. While the Americans were present, contrary to the previous arrangements Egyptian President as-Sīsī did not visit the summit. Moreover even there was not even an Egyptian delegation in the ceremony. Yet later it was announced that Egyptian Foreign Minister Sāmiḥ Šukrī was present in al-‘Ulā and singed the al-‘Ulā Agreement. He was, however, strangely absent from the ceremony, and that tells a lot about the Egyptian position. Egypt much rather accepted the fact rather than truly reconciling with Qatar. And that can practically be said about Bahrain and the Emirates as well.

            The whole arrangement was odd on many levels. Was this a GCC summit, or a reconciliation meeting between Qatar and the states blockading it for years? If it was the first, why were the Egyptians invited and what did the Americans do there? Even though this way Kuwait’s role is understandable, as it was the main mediating state. Was it the latter, what Oman had to do with it, and why were most heads of states absent?

            All that can be clearly explained by the very nature of this meeting, in which formalities were little concern. Saudi Arabia, and especially Muḥammad ibn Zāyid for his own personal goals made a pact with Qatar, which Emir Tamīm happily accepted, and all the others simply went along. This, however, shows that regardless of the claims, there is no reconciliation, only a ceasefire. But there is a rearrangement between Riyadh and Doha. And if there is any doubt who was the real winner, all is clear from the contradiction of the behaviors. Emir Tamīm was happy and cheerful celebrating the day, while the other acted as they attended an unpleasant formality.




            The summit was even more strange by the speeches, rare and brief as they were. No one talked about the past, the blockade – only that it will soon be lifted – and the former accusations against Qatar. Nothing was said about Qatar’s closeness to Turkey and Iran, which before was a major concern, and no one seemed to remember the demand to shut down the al-Jazeera network, or that Qatar was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which is listed as a terrorist organization in all the formerly blockading states. As if there was no crisis, no disparity, and for some obscure reason there was only a rift, which now happily ended. And on the other hand, there was no apology, and there was no word of compensation for Qatar. After all, was that blockade just, or not? We never came to learn that.

            So what was talked about in the summit and in the final document? Apart from the celebrations of ending the blockade and the struggle, both host Muḥammad ibn Salmān and the final document talked about Iran. That Iran and its allies shall be thwarted in the region, that it will not be allowed to have a nuclear program and called on the international community to stop the Iranian missile arsenal. It even went to great links to stop Iran in Syria, to demand the withdrawal of the Iranian “occupation” and that of its allies in Syria, with not a single mention about the role of Turkey, or the Americans there.

            This is not simply unrealistic, out of touch with the matter at hand, but oddly resembles the tunes of the Trump administration and that of Israel. This was always shared by most Gulf states, but now it gave the appearance that Qatar joined this fold. After all, Doha had no objection to the final statement and to the words of the Saudi Crown Prince. But did it really happen?

            There were Western and Gulf sources as well, which pointed out that while there is no real winner by al-‘Ulā, the real loser is Iran, as the Gulf once again united against it. That is what Republican Senator Lindsey Graham claimed as well, which was happily broadcasted by the Gulf and the Egyptian press as well.

            But is that so? Was it the case there we should see a change in Qatar’s stance on Iran and tangible steps about to be taken to achieve the goals outlined by Muḥammad ibn Salmān. But there is nothing of that. On the contrary, Qatar shortly after the summit confirmed that it will not change its policy with Iran and Turkey. Which is very logical. The close relations with these two states saved Qatar from the blockade and made it possible to withstand the pressure. These partners proved to be reliable and useful. Unlike the GCC partners, which used the most severe methods against them in 2013, again in 2017, and even now they are not really about to change.

            How big still is the rift shows in one of the quarrels after the al-‘Ulā Summit. Naturally, all former blockading states have a hard time to justify why they changed their policies. All statements try to ease the discomfort of the result and that they achieved nothing and within this context, Emirati State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwār Qarqāš said that though the change in Qatar’s position – which never happened – is commendable, Qatar has to regain the trust of Abū Zabī. This was firmly rejected by the official spokesman of the Qatari government Aḥmad ar-Rumayḥī, who described such statements as: “peripheral attempts to disturb the positive atmosphere”. That perfectly shows that there is no reconciliation, especially not between Qatar and its staunchest adversaries, the Emirates, and Egypt. That is why many analysts, like Turkish-Syrian Ḥusnī al-Maḥallī, viewed al-‘Ulā as “a play of Saudi-Qatari reconciliation”.

            All the claims about Iran – now suddenly forgetting Turkey – are only to create a smokescreen that there is a bigger goal, a bigger threat to fight against. To cover the fact that in fact nothing was achieved by the blockade. All that Qatar agreed to was to drop its claims in the international forums for ramifications for the losses caused by the illegal blockade. This is serious money, but with the restarted trade and opened transport lanes, Qatar wins much more. On the other hand, nothing of the original demands were achieved.

            And is it really plausible that Qatar would seriously cooperate in a very risky struggle with Iran with the very states, which even recently planned to invade it? Or those states would trust Qatar? And even if there was any trust, is there real effort in this direction? Should Iran really fear this prospect? After all, how could these states force Iran to yield, if they couldn’t even break Qatar?

            Behind the smokescreen, however, there is one very noticeable change in the region. While it is clear that the relations of Qatar with the Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt did not change a bit, with Saudi Arabia it did. More so in the personal level between Emir Tamīm and Muḥammad ibn Salmān.


Conflicting scenarios

            So why was that so important to make this step now for Riyadh? Because it is very clear that Riyadh simply reached out to Kuwait to arrange a deal, and it was accepted by Doha. It is entirely a Saudi project.

            In that matter, American participation, or more precisely the role of Jared Kushner is of great importance. Kushner in the last four years, and especially in the last one was busy with only one agenda. The secure the Israeli interests in the region and to provide Trump support for that. Sabotaging the Iranian nuclear deal was the first step, but otherwise, he only had two achievements. The failed “deal of the century”, and the generally successful normalization process. That, however, came to its final chapter with Morocco. Clearly, there are not more Arab states on the line, as even the Americans talk about Indonesia and Pakistan as the next possible candidates for normalization. Except, of course, Saudi Arabia and Kushner’s claims about Qatar.

            Saudi Arabia seems to be a possible target, but because of the still considerable internal resistance, this matter is highly tied to the fate of Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān. Who is by all accounts very much in favor of a deal with Israel, but might lose in the internal struggle with such a move. He would not act until he becomes the king. For which he needs guarantees.

            As for Qatar, Doha benefitted by taking a stance contradicting that of the Emirates, and it has no interest in changing. It can hardly be forced into a settlement, as long as its relations with Turkey, but also with Iran and Pakistan are good. The price for normalization was offered by Kushner, as he would end the blockade against it. And clearly, now he did. But that does not really seem to change Doha’s position on the normalization. Would it join the process, Doha would fall under the influence of the Emirati-Israeli alliance, which would limit its foreign policy. It would also affect his relations with the influential Muslim Brotherhood movements. Simply put, for the moment Qatar has no interest in the normalization, but it was happy to accept the deal.

            Therefore, logically the reasons fall back to Saudi Arabia, to Muḥammad ibn Salmān himself. He has much to worry by the change in Washington, and he has to brace himself for this eventuality. His alliance with the Emirates is significantly weakening, and therefore it seems logical that he is ready to change sides in a way. To leave the Israel-Emirati-Egyptian alliance, and join the Turkish-Qatari block – possibly with Oman on the side -, which promises at least fewer problems. That is smoother, and for the time being more beneficial route.

            And it is a very pressing decision to make. Because his personal ties and those of his country with Abū Zabī is worsening rapidly. That is what was clear with the formation of a new “unity government” in Yemen, the first major indication that Saudi Arabia is ready to leave this conflict. The reaction to that was a curious attack on ‘Adan airport, right at the time when this new government arrived at ‘Adan. But that shall be our topic for next week.