Since drones and missiles struck Saudi Arabia’s Khurais oil field and Abqaiq processing plant in September, Riyadh has been revisiting its foreign policy strategies and tactics. These unprecedented attacks that targeted the Saudi economy’s engine have prompted Riyadh to try to better address real threats to the Kingdom instead of ones which are fabricated, manipulated, or exaggerated through information warfare.
In this context, the Saudi leadership sees efforts aimed at isolating Doha as far less critical in the current period compared to previous periods. The blockade has accumulated diminishing returns from the Saudi standpoint, and although it is difficult to imagine Saudi Arabia ceasing to have problems with Qatar, there has been a notable moderation of Riyadh’s rhetoric and policies concerning Doha.
Signs suggest that Qatar and Saudi Arabia could find a ‘new understanding’ which could result in bilateral relations re-normalising before the end of this year.
In recent months, backchannel discussions and high-ranking Qatari officials paying visits to the Kingdom underscore how both Gulf states have taken advantage of a new set of circumstances to open the door to reconciliation. In the lead up to this month’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit (the third since the Gulf crisis erupted in mid-2017), scheduled for December 10, there have been indicators suggesting that Saudi and Qatari officials are taking steps aimed at mending relations.
Many pundits read Saudi Arabia’s decision to invite the Emir of Qatar as a sign suggesting that resolution of the Gulf dispute may come soon despite Riyadh having previously invited him to the Kingdom during previous points of the GCC crisis.
Additionally, that media outlets in Saudi Arabia and the other states in the anti-Qatar bloc—Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—covered the Arabian Gulf tournament in Qatar with a tone that was not hostile toward Doha might also point to anti-Qatar positions softening.
Lastly, the GCC summit, while initially planned to be held in the UAE (which has opposed Qatar more than Saudi Arabia has), was recently moved to Saudi Arabia. This switch increased optimism about the summit leading to a breakthrough in the two-and-a-half-year rift.
With the Arabian Gulf cup providing a chance for Riyadh-Doha relations to improve and Saudi officials perhaps keen to lure Qatari investment for the Aramco IPO and other parts of Vision 2030, the Saudis have been pragmatic in demonstrating goodwill toward Doha. Nonetheless, it remains unclear to what extent Riyadh will ease the blockade before the GCC summit kicks off and whether the Emir of Qatar will attend. Also unclear is whether the blockading states will act with unity vis-a-vis Qatar.
Will Saudi Arabia and the UAE act together?
There is no denying that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s tactics, priorities, perceptions, and strategies in the region do not always align. Violence between the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council and Saudi-backed UN-recognized Yemeni government that beset Aden in August highlighted this geopolitical reality. To be sure, this month, it is possible that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will approach Doha differently.
As Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen recently stated, “So much animosity has been directed against Qatar from Abu Dhabi that those ties may be harder to repair than the ones with Saudi Arabia.”
Indeed, just as back in 2017 the blockading states had many of their own grievances with Qatar that factored into each country’s decisions in relation to Doha, it is the case today that each member of the so-called Anti-Terror-Quartet has its unique set of interests and views that inform its position on Doha.
Abu Dhabi’s threat perceptions of Qatar are heavily influenced by ideological factors, whereas that is less the case for Riyadh. Thus on top of the information warfare that the UAE waged against Qatar since May/June 2017 — which makes Abu Dhabi-Doha reconciliation more difficult to imagine — different views about what Qatar stands for and the gas-rich emirate’s role in the Middle East may prompt the UAE and Saudi Arabia to no longer be on the same page concerning Doha.
By the same token, the possibility of Abu Dhabi joining Riyadh in pursuing a rapprochement with Doha cannot be dismissed for two main reasons.
First, there is US pressure on the Emirates to reconcile with Qatar. Second, Dubai’s economic health has suffered from the blockade of Doha, which may prompt the Emirati leadership to revisit the issue of UAE-Qatar relations, especially within the context of animosity between Doha and Riyadh decreasing.
Thus, the UAE might be set to make overtures to its fellow GCC member-state that Abu Dhabi spent the past two-and-a-half-years accusing of spreading hatred, terrorism, and extremism across the region.
Regardless of the UAE factor, a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement by itself would mark a major success for Kuwait. As the Gulf state that has been leading mediation efforts since this festering feud began in mid-2017, Kuwait has worked tirelessly to resolve the GCC crisis. The Sultanate of Oman too has attempted to help the blockading states and Qatar resolve their dispute, making any further thawing of relations between both sides in Riyadh this month a welcome development from Muscat’s perspective.
A turning point for Saudi Arabia?
If Saudi Arabia unfreezes its diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar, such a move will signal a significant shift in Riyadh’s foreign policy with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father King Salman at the helm. If such a turning point occurs at the GCC summit, it will be essential to understand such a moment within the grander context of all that Saudi Arabia is facing in terms of its alliance with Washington and the region’s chaotic state of affairs.
Riyadh learned from the Aramco attacks that the Trump administration’s willingness and ability to protect Saudi Arabia from such future incidents should be under question. Despite all the money which the Saudis have spent on American military technology and arms, it is evident that the Kingdom remains extremely vulnerable to foreign actors seeking to undermine Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, the attacks of September 14 also left Riyadh more concerned about the real possibility of the US and Iran engaging in a military confrontation, given the implications for Saudi security.
Finally, President Donald Trump’s decision in northern Syria in October 2019, which followed his conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left the Saudis believing that the White House cannot be trusted to stand by Washington’s allies.
Although Trump’s “betrayal” may have been the YPG terrorist organisation in that instance, Riyadh and other Gulf capitals wonder if Trump may turn on them next.
These factors, among others, have pushed the Saudi leadership to revisit the Kingdom’s foreign policy. A rapprochement with Qatar would best serve Riyadh’s interests amid this dangerous period in which attempts to restore GCC unity could be seen as beneficial for all six members of the bloc.
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