Despite the edifice of reconciliation, the root causes for the Gulf rift remain unresolved.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt’s agreement to resume full relations with Qatar is the most substantial step in de-escalating the rift that has engulfed the region for over three years.
Following several rounds of talks – brokered by Kuwait and the US – the deal was first announced by Kuwait’s foreign minister on Monday, as Saudi Arabia reopened its borders with Qatar ahead of the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on Tuesday in the Saudi governorate of Al Ula.
On Tuesday, leaders of the blockading quartet and Qatar proceeded to sign a “solidarity and stability” agreement billed the Al Ula declaration to resolve the three-year political dispute and close a gloomy chapter in GCC relations.
At the conclusion of the summit, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan described the deal as “the turning of the page on all points of difference and a full return to diplomatic relations”.
It is unlikely that further details would be made public, with the focus being more on mending the fractured bloc. The six-member states agreed to unite for regional security and vowed to cooperate to tackle major issues like the Covid-19 health crisis.
The Saudi-led quartet imposed a diplomatic, trade and travel boycott on Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and cosying up to regional adversary Iran.
Doha repeatedly denied the allegations, maintaining there was no legitimate justification for the embargo and that it undermined their sovereignty.
“It’s likely that the Saudi-led axis realised that it wasn’t going to be able to force Qatar into accepting terms that effectively compromise its national sovereignty,” Dr Mohamad Elmasry, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, told TRT World.
Under the agreement, Qatar will suspend lawsuits against the blockading nations at the World Trade Organization and International Court of Justice.
Noticeably absent are any concessions that were pushed by the quartet upon Doha as a precondition for lifting the blockade. Among the 13 demands included shuttering the Al Jazeera news network, downgrading links with Iran, and ceasing military cooperation with Turkey.
By not having to compromise on any of those demands ultimately represents a “clear victory” for Qatar, said Elmasry, adding that Doha has “always demonstrated a willingness to end the dispute provided respect for sovereignty was maintained.”
While Qatar withstood immense pressure and did not concede on any of the quartet’s demands, some observers were hesitant to declare any winners or losers as the dust settled.
“In the long run, everybody loses in this crisis,” said Dr Sanam Vakil, a Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East & North Africa Programme.
Tuesday’s official agreement does not mark the end of the Gulf rift given the underlying tensions that led to the crisis remain, she emphasised.
“Without public acknowledgement of those issues, what we will see is a first step rapprochement, which is important and shouldn’t be discounted,” Vakil told TRT World.
“But behind the scenes, much deep work and repair is needed to address sovereignty and interference on all sides.”
Weathering the storm
The quartet’s decision in 2017 to sever diplomatic relations and suspend all land, air and sea travel with Qatar immediately plunged the diminutive monarchy into crisis.
Intra-GCC trade and commerce collapsed, families were abruptly separated, and thousands were forced to leave their homes overnight.
It also had to withstand economic and fiscal sabotage by the UAE.
Since then, Qatar has emerged from the blockade more self-sufficient and resilient.
According to a recent IMF report, Doha’s “financial buffers remain ample” and GDP is forecasted to grow by 2.5 percent in 2021.
“Over the last few years, the Qataris have managed to learn to live with the blockade and that has helped them discover better ways of living and more efficient ways of sustaining their economy and managing their affairs,” said Sultan Barakat, director of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute.
“This resulted in an extremely resilient country that has demonstrated itself in the lifting of the blockade without them having to address the totally irrational 13 conditions,” he added.
Before the restrictions, Qatar imported 90 percent of its food, forcing it to adapt quickly. It opened domestic dairy and meat farms, while increasing trade with Iran and Turkey to cushion the blow of the blockade.
Increasingly ostracised, it sought allies in the region. With Saudi or Emirati invasion a tangible threat, Qatar boosted its arms procurement programme and strengthened defence ties with Turkey.
Indeed, the blockade had the opposite effect when it came to pushing Qatar away from Iran.
Since Qatar Airways could not use Bahraini nor Saudi airspace, Doha has been paying Iran in excess of $100 million annually for use of alternate air routes. In the early days of the blockade, it relied on food imports as well.
Doha’s dependence on Tehran meant that the GCC could not take a united hard line against Iran. Doha’s relationship with Ankara remained a cause for concern too.
Any ramping down of the Gulf dispute is unlikely to have much of an impact on Qatar’s bilateral relationships.
Vakil points out that Doha has long fostered pragmatic links with Iran and was careful not to overstate the relationship; with Tehran equally mindful of GCC dynamics and not overexaggerating their relationship with the Qataris.
“It would be very difficult three-and-a-half years later for the Qataris to walk away from the modest relationships they have with the Iranian government,” Vakil said.
“Everyone is very clear-eyed about the nature and the limits of the relationship.”
There is also “zero chance” the Qataris will shift tactics and downgrade their ties with Turkey in any way, given how important Ankara has been as a partner for Doha and vice-versa, Vakil added.
Elmasry agreed, saying that it is “unlikely to expect that Qatar will greatly alter its political relationship with either Turkey or Iran, especially since Qatar has emphasised its right to maintain an independent foreign policy.”
If there is any economic consequence, it will be borne by the Iranians, who have been a major trading partner and benefited from Qatari dependence on its airspace, observed Elmasry.
Unity on the bloc?
While a lot of the attention on the Gulf rift focuses on Iran, it is not the sole animating force behind a splintered Khaleej.
“This is more about internal GCC unity and politics,” said Vakil, highlighting significant economic crises and leadership challenges within the bloc.
She views multiple driving forces that would motivate the GCC to resolve the conflict, including regional ones which have multiplied over the years such as the ongoing wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria.
For those issues to be resolved requires “regional investment and regional diplomacy,” Vakil believes, adding that the GCC has a lot more to gain by not having Qatar as a competitor, especially at a time when the edifice of unity would be more beneficial.
For those reasons alone, it makes the de-escalation of tensions an important strategic move according to Vakil.
What is going to be needed moving forward, however, is that internal GCC dynamics have to become equally transactional and less zero-sum.
“Part of the challenge of the GCC since its inception in 1981, has been that some countries have tried to dominate the bloc, and this has come at the expense of smaller countries that have been frustrated, and Qatar is no exception,” Vakil noted.
“Having an institutional mechanism to manage and address these frustrations and political challenges is deeply important,” she said, adding that GCC would benefit from its member states working together to “create a more collaborative economic environment in a post-Covid and low oil-priced world.”