Even if the US pressures Riyadh into easing its stance against Doha, it's naive to assume that Saudi-Qatari relations would return to their pre-blockade status.
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner was in Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week. His main reason for being in these two Gulf countries pertains to the outgoing administration’s efforts to broker a resolution to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis before President-elect Joe Biden takes over on January 20, 2021.
Yet even if Kushner succeeds in easing friction between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, a full mending of relations within the GCC cannot be expected mainly due to Abu Dhabi’s rigid position against Qatar.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) continues to view Qatar as a major threat to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and it does not seem plausible for US pressure to nudge Abu Dhabi away from this firm stance.
Ultimately, even if Saudi Arabia and Qatar sign a preliminary deal, it is difficult to imagine Kushner convincing Abu Dhabi to re-embrace Doha as an ally.
What this would mean is that the blockade of Qatar could quickly become another regional issue where there is notable space between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s positions.
Yet if Saudi Arabia and the UAE move in different paths vis-a-vis the alleged Qatari threat, this will not only be an outcome of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi having different perspectives on Doha’s conduct, but also their different situations in relations to the incoming US administration and the diplomatic establishment in Washington.
Jockeying for position
Saudi Arabia faces a major public relations crisis Washington.
Due to his purported role in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) cannot return to the US for any formal visits, and only 13 months ago Biden blasted Saudi Arabia as a global “pariah” while vowing to cut off US arms sales to Riyadh.
As Washington sees it, however, the UAE is not implicated in the Khashoggi affair nor have the Emiratis been directly involved in Yemen’s multifaceted conflict since 2019 (even if Abu Dhabi retains influence via proxy groups).
Also, whereas the US media has paid a fair share of attention to the plights of activists behind bars in the kingdom like Loujain al Hathloul, human rights defenders such as Ahmed Mansoor who are detained in the UAE receive far less coverage in the American media.
Moreover, thanks to the Abraham Accords, the UAE’s leadership has likely concluded that it has been able to cement positive relations with members of the Biden administration.
This is to say that officials in Riyadh, far more than their counterparts in Abu Dhabi, are justifiably concerned about their country’s potential problems in Washington once the post-Trump period begins.
Within this context, the Saudi kingdom may decide to reconcile with Qatar in order to reverse some of the damage to MBS’s image in the US. It is doubtful that Saudi Arabia lifting, or at least easing, its blockade of Qatar will cause the establishment in Washington to forgive the crown prince for his role in Khashoggi’s murder or his actions in Yemen.
But such a move would help and send the Biden administration a message about Riyadh’s willingness to revisit some of its more controversial foreign policy decisions since 2017 in the interest of showing support to the US while taking Washington’s concerns seriously.
At a time in which the Saudi government and society believe that it is premature to normalise relations with Israel, officials in Riyadh may realise that reconciliation with Qatar would be a far less risky or controversial move which could serve Saudi interests in Washington once Trump leaves the Oval Office.
A new chapter for Saudi-Qatari relations?
Even if the US can pressure Riyadh into easing its stance against Doha, it would be naive to assume that Saudi-Qatari relations would return to their pre-blockade status. The renormalisation of diplomatic and economic relations between these two GCC members will not change the fact that trust between the Saudis and Qataris will remain eroded for the foreseeable future.
Saudi-Qatari trade may resume at some levels, although it wouldn’t return to the pre-blockade levels because Doha has invested so much into rerouting its trade links to circumvent Saudi pressure on Qatar.
Knowing that a third Gulf crisis could happen later, the Qataris do not want to become economically dependent (again) on their border with Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, it would be too risky for the Qataris to trust Saudi Arabia again. The experience of the past three-and-a-half years will inform Qatari perspectives on Saudi Arabia for at least another generation, making sure that Doha will never want to be vulnerable to what could be Riyadh’s actions amid a third GCC crisis down the road.
Nonetheless, a preliminary deal between Riyadh and Doha would mark a positive start in a longer effort aimed at resolving the GCC crisis. It would give greater credibility to Saudi government statements about seeking to find common ground with Qatar in order to move past this bitter Arabian feud.
With the incoming US administration likely to be far less tolerant of Saudi Arabia’s bellicose actions in the region, Riyadh might be forced to begin conducting a foreign policy that is more pragmatic.
The Saudis reestablishing diplomatic relations with Qatar and reopening bilateral trade would be an excellent place for MBS to begin in terms of making adjustments in preparation for the post-Trump era.
The 64,000-dollar question is, what cards does Abu Dhabi have to play in order to spoil any Saudi-Qatari rapprochement?
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