Expect the Gulf crisis to continue well into 2020, even if Saudi-Qatar relations thaw.

Earlier this month, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held its 40th summit in Riyadh. Throughout the lead-up to this gathering, there was speculation about the Gulf crisis resolving. There were indeed indicators suggesting that this was possible. 

Doha’s condemnation of the September 14 Aramco attacks, backchannel diplomacy between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in recent months, and “sports diplomacy” gave many a sense of hope about the summit resulting in a settlement.

Although no watershed deal was reached in Riyadh, the increased diplomatic space could open up new opportunities to move toward a resolution of the feud. 

While speaking at the Doha Forum, Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani asserted that there had been “small progress, just a little progress.” The country’s Finance Minister Ali Sherif al Emadi also explained that he still believes in the GCC as an institution.

How the blockading states — often referred to as the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) — deal with the question of GCC reconciliation is difficult to predict. Nonetheless, there seems to be good reason to expect the ATQ members — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — to not act in a united manner vis-a-vis Doha. 

It appears that Abu Dhabi is working to prevent both Riyadh and Manama from reconciling with Doha. As Kristian Coates Ulrichsen recently opined, “The most difficult negotiations may be the ones that take place within the [ATQ] and specifically between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, rather than the direct talks between Saudi and Qatari officials.”  

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have different perspectives on Qatar (and other regional issues too). Such divergent views could result in the Emiratis maintaining their hardline stance against Doha even after Saudi Arabia possibly lifts, or at least eases, its blockade against Qatar. 

The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash took to Twitter shortly after the GCC summit to declare that the Gulf crisis “continues” and that the “absence of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad from the Riyadh summit was due to poor judgment.”

To be sure, Riyadh has its interests in moving toward renormalisation of relations with Qatar. Within the context of Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s interest in tapping into investment opportunities produced by a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement factor into Riyadh’s strategic thinking. 

Considering Saudi Arabia’s setbacks with the Aramco IPO, attempts to lure Qatari investors into the Kingdom’s ambitious projects could, if successful, help finance Vision 2030. As Dania Thafer mentioned, another incentive for Saudi Arabia to “paper over political differences” with Doha is the idea of signing a “substantial gas deal” with Qatar.

Although Riyadh has these reasons to ease bilateral relations with Qatar, the UAE may find itself attempting to pressure Saudi Arabia into not doing so. Abu Dhabi knows that without Saudi Arabia, the anti-Qatar bloc would be far less effective in terms of pressuring Qatar. 

On December 14, the opening day of the Doha Forum, Minister Gargash accused Qatar of pursuing its “quest to divide ranks and evade commitments” after a series of ‘Qatari leaks’ indicated Doha’s intent to seek reconciliation with Riyadh, but not Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Manama.

Regardless of which (if any) ATQ member(s) normalise relations with Qatar, Doha’s relations with Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh will likely be defined by high levels of mistrust for a considerable period. 

Effects of the GCC crisis will be felt in many areas for a long time to come. This lack of trust cannot be immediately eliminated just because a political decision was made to accept a rapprochement.

Early on in the crisis, Courtney Freer wrote, “The crisis has become not just about elite politics but has affected grassroots sentiments and galvanized national identities in states that are relatively newly independent.” 

She also explained that “the social ramifications mirror the ongoing political strife, yet are likely to outlast the crisis, and thus dim the prospects for any resolution.” Indeed, given the severity of this crisis, which has been unprecedented throughout GCC history — particularly exemplified by family members being kept apart from one another — the social dimensions of this crisis will impact people-to-people interactions among citizens of Arabian Peninsula states for a long time to come.

Lastly, as Qatar University’s Majid M Al Ansari maintains, there is something to say about Qatar possibly not being willing to pay the price of reconciliation (of course, depending on that price). Put simply, since June 2017, Qataris have become more nationalistic, autonomous from Saudi Arabia, and confident in asserting national sovereignty. If reconciliation with Saudi Arabia (and/or other blockading states) would require Qatar to relinquish some degree of sovereignty and independence, Doha may end up refusing any such offer.

Since early on in the GCC crisis, the Trump administration has tried to convince the parties to take steps necessary for de-escalation, mainly due to the White House’s concerns with how Iran has taken advantage of the dispute to advance its interests. 

Yet Washington’s efforts to bring Qatar and the ATQ to a settlement have, thus far, proven futile. What is clear is that not all involved in the crisis see the dispute with the same perspective as the White House. 

Doha and the blockading states have their unique national interests in play which shape their assessment of the costs and benefits of reconciliation. Nonetheless, it can be expected that the Trump administration will continue trying to play its cards to incentivise Qatar and the ATQ to overcome this dispute to help the White House with its campaign of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic.

Inevitably, any rapprochement between Qatar and one of the blockading states will have to overcome certain hurdles to become a reality. Yet looking ahead, if one of the ATQ members will end, or at least soften its anti-Qatar policies, it is most likely to be Saudi Arabia or perhaps Bahrain, whose foreign policy decision-making is done in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. 

Nonetheless, it appears too difficult to imagine any significant improvement in Abu Dhabi-Doha relations. Thus in 2020, we should not expect full GCC reunification even if Saudi-Qatari relations continue to thaw.

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