The decision to restore relations with Qatar is a smart one. But can the Saudi crown prince follow through?
The thawing of relations, after three bitter years of antagonism, between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a welcome relief on a multitude of levels. The news in early January that the border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be opened paving the way for the Emir of Qatar to attend a summit is in many ways the starter’s pistol to a more sober, grown up approach to regional diplomacy and a parting shot to the Trump legacy.
The party, which was enjoyed very much by Riyadh which allowed the MBS regime a number of geopolitical eccentricities and indulgences, is most certainly over.
And it’s not just about President-elect Joe Biden's touch ushering in a new era of a conservative and somewhat simplistic approach to relations with Gulf partners – based more or less entirely on human rights – but also another rationale between these two countries: common sense.
It makes no sense whatsoever for GCC states to continue with this strategy against Qatar to teach this tiny, yet dynamic country a lesson. Especially when such an endeavour so spectacularly backfired in the faces of those who tried to pull it off. In the end, it was as though the Saudis were tied up in razor wire with Qatar. Everything they did, just led to more self harm.
It is of course common sense for the stability of the entire region that Qatar is brought in from the cold and old spats can be put aside as new dialogue ensues. Quite apart from the fact that it puts Biden’s administration in a tight spot when Qatar houses a large US troop deployment, there are other factors which need to be taken into account. Qatar could be a key conduit in bringing together a workable peace with Iran.
If the new US administration can get off to a good start in Iran and turn around Tehran's decision to raise its uranium enrichment to 20 percent – way beyond the terms set out in the deal struck in 2015 during the Obama administration – then this will calm tensions in Riyadh. A more grown up non-Trump approach can emerge towards calming a cauldron of regional hatred and fear which was entirely manufactured initially by the outgoing president to boost US arms deals. It is a fitting irony to Trump’s bellicose, clumsy and rank idiotic decision to pull out of the JCPOA, or the so-called ‘Iran deal’, that Iran’s hardliners are gaining power, that its uranium enrichment program has increased and that war is a perpetual possibility – all of which, if we are to believe Trump, were supposed to be averted following the erroneous stunt.
That thought-train might have been advantageous to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, if Trump could have secured a second term in office, but given his sensational exit, panic has set it. MBS, in essence, doesn’t see himself surviving very long if he is to be a pariah of the new Biden administration which is the thinking behind the decision to lift the air, sea and land blockade which was imposed in July 2017.
In a nutshell, MBS needs Qatar and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani will be dropping all legal cases against Riyadh while the 13 demands that Riyadh initially expected Qatar to adhere to – such as scrapping Al Jazeera TV – will be airbrushed out of future talks.
The move, although it makes MBS look like a loser with some of his critics in the Saudi Kingdom, will actually earn him credibility at home and most certainly with Joe Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan who has already voiced concerns about the recent decision to imprison a women’s rights activist.
If MBS is capable of admitting a mea culpa over the egregiously unwise decision to blockade Qatar, then what else is he capable of admitting to? Perhaps we shall see in the coming weeks a pardon for Loujain al Hathloul as a gesture to the Biden administration adhering to new human rights based relations with countries in the region.
In the meantime, we should assume that not signing up to ‘normalisation’ of relations with Israel is a deft move designed to give MBS aces to play in the coming weeks when he tests the water with new incumbents in the Oval office. His own positioning with Israel has always been more surreptitious and opaque than, say, the UAE. Although he is reported to have been behind a deal struck between Israel and Morocco in December, he was furious to have discovered that the Israelis were not so discreet in keeping a meeting between Netanyahu and himself a secret when they met in a Saudi resort city in November.
Expect an announcement in late January and for Israel to up its bombing campaign against Iran in Syria as a payback for Gulf States and Israel’s anti-Iran stance being exposed as nothing more than strong words from a weak stomach.
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