Why is this interesting? - The Blockade Edition

On Qatar, regional politics, and a potential resolution to crisis

WITI contributor Ahmed Al Omran (AAO) was formerly the FT’s man in Saudi. Now, he’s making his excellent Substack, Riyadh Bureau, his full-time gig. We’re publishing his recent addition on the Qatar blockade here. For some of the most thoughtful analysis on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, go subscribe to his newsletter with a 20 percent discount. -Colin (CJN)

Ahmed here. Is the Gulf crisis about to be resolved? Noises from Kuwait, Riyadh, and Doha all suggest that, after more than three years of impasse and near misses, we may finally have a breakthrough.

Kuwait foreign minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah said Friday that “fruitful talks” were recently held and all parties “affirmed their commitment to Gulf and Arab solidarity and stability”. Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said he is “somewhat optimistic” that a resolution involving not just the kingdom but also the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt is now possible. His Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman on Twitter called the Kuwaiti statement “an imperative step towards resolving the GCC crisis”.

It remains unclear what might be the final form of this agreement. News reports in recent days said the two sides remain far apart on many issues, but they may agree on a series of “confidence-building measures” such as re-opening the land border and allowing Qatar Airways to use the kingdom’s airspace. In return, Qatar would be expected to “tone down” its Al Jazeera television network coverage.

Why is this interesting?

If, and that’s a big if, this indeed marks the beginning of the end of this crisis, then it is probably worth reflecting on how we got here in the first place.

It all started one early morning in late May 2017. It was the holy month of Ramadan when people around the region would spend their evenings watching soap operas on television after breaking their fast with family and friends at sunset. At some point after midnight, the Qatar state news agency website published controversial comments about Iran and Israel attributed to ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel and Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia immediately carried the comments with flashing “breaking news” banners. Al Jazeera reported that Qatar News Agency was the victim of a cyberattack and the Qatari government denied that Sheikh Tamim made any statement.

The denials coming from Doha did not seem to matter to Al Arabiya or Sky News Arabia. The two channels continued their wall-to-wall coverage of the alleged comments with anti-Qatar pundits in-studio and remotely (including many from Egypt) until at least 7 am. At first, they simply ignored Qatari denials and insisted on treating the purported comments as fact. Later that day, their anchors and pundits would mention them in passing before dismissing the hacking claims and saying it did not matter if the comments were real or fake because Qatar’s conduct and foreign policy has always been problematic.

On June 5th, 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt announced cutting off air, sea, and land links with Qatar and severing all diplomatic relations. They accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, interfering in their domestic affairs, developing ties with Iran, and giving refuge to key figures in Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar denied these allegations. The four countries issued a list of 13 sweeping demands and gave Qatar ten days to comply; Qatar said the demands were designed to be rejected.

With both sides digging in their heels, the Gulf crisis gradually reached a stalemate. Qatar has managed to overcome the initial shock of the boycott and found alternative—if expensive—routes for transport and trade. Saudi crown prince described Qatar as “a very, very, very small issue” as the kingdom had to deal with a host of other crises in quick succession: a prolonged war in Yemen, the Ritz-Carlton corruption purge, a diplomatic rift with Canada, and the Khashoggi murder. The late Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait tried to meditate until he passed away in October. It seemed that his attempts were being repeatedly frustrated by a new generation of rulers who had little time for the Gulf’s long-held traditions and decorum, but maybe there is a light at the end of this tunnel after all.

Every time I was asked by colleagues or friends about this crisis since it first broke out, my answer has been pretty much the same: I think the two sides will come to some compromise before Qatar hosts the World Cup in late 2022, simply because it will be such a logistical nightmare to try to organize this huge international event under the travel and trade restrictions introduced by the boycott. The news about a potential thaw must have come as a huge source of relief for Fifa president Gianni Infantino who at some point tried to play peacemaker by naïvely suggesting that an expanded tournament can be shared by Qatar and its neighbors.

As we tentatively move closer to a conclusion of this saga, it is hard not to look back at the past three years and wonder about the resources spent on this dispute that could have been used elsewhere. Saudi Arabia and its allies may have been right that their long-term grievances against Qatar and its maverick policies must be addressed and they insist they had no choice but to take this course of action, but one has to ask if there could have been a more efficient way to handle this, especially considering the repetitional damage incurred by the kingdom as a result of this crisis.

For some observers from outside who may not be privy to the long and complex history of the region, Saudi Arabia must have looked like it was bullying its much smaller neighbor. Another aspect not often talked about in this dispute is the human cost. There are many families that have moved freely between these Gulf countries in the last three decades thanks to GCC rules that allow people to travel in the region without a passport and practically treat the citizens of each country as locals when it comes to employment and ownership. It is estimated that more than 17,000 Saudis were living in Qatar before the crisis. Overnight, they suddenly had to make major life decisions about their jobs and families without having many options.

Finally, it will be interesting to watch how the potential end of the Gulf crisis would play in the context of the Saudi-UAE alliance. The two countries have diverged over the Yemen war and more recently we saw tension related to the compliance with Opec+ oil cuts. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have dismissed the idea of a limited resolution that doesn’t include UAE as well as Bahrain and Egypt. But those considered “Abu Dhabi’s men” in Riyadh who continue to define the dispute in the terms of an existential battle, and some of them have not been exactly shy about expressing skepticism of the recent talks, arguing that the Qataris still cannot be trusted.

When rumors about a possible opening in the crisis began gathering pace in early November, Saudi journalist Abdulaziz al-Khames, who hosts a talk show on Sky News Arabia, posted a stern video warning against the calls for ending the rift where he attempted to channel Amal Dunqul’s famous poem “Do Not Reconcile”. 

“Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, but would you reconcile with someone who turned against you? Would you reconcile with someone who betrayed you every time you trusted them, as we have seen in 2014? Would you reconcile with someone who hides his dagger behind his back?” Khames asked. “Those who call for reconciliation do not understand the story. The only thing they care about is their own interests…”

Similar sentiments can be seen on the other side. “The Gulf reconciliation being talked about over the past two days requires first apologizing to the Qatari people and for Saudi Arabia to cease its previous behavior where it aimed to force its will and agenda on others and not to interfere in deciding the fate of Arab populations who seek liberty from tyrannical regimes,” Issa Al Ishaq, a Qatari writer, said on Twitter.

It is not surprising that, after three years of nasty attacks and counterattacks, the mistrust is running deep. It is far easier to take something apart than put it back together. (AAO

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ahmed (AAO)

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