Three recent events this month have left some observers considering the possibility of the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar beginning to crack. Yet only a handful of Gulf experts have been optimistic and for only a handful of reasons.
First, on May 6, Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa made a telephone call to Qatar’s Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani to mark the first day of Ramadan. The rare conversation was the first between the two since the Gulf crisis broke out in the middle of 2017.
Although the Bahraini government was quick to emphasise that this call did not signal any change in Manama’s stance toward Qatar, several analysts read the conversation as a possible indicator of Bahrain’s interest in warming up to Doha.
Second, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia sent their delegations to senior officials’ meetings at the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, held in Doha on May 1.
This event, which Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, inaugurated with a speech that called for resolving disputes peacefully and respecting international legitimacy, marked the first time that either Bahrain or Saudi Arabia attended meetings in Qatar since the blockade began.
Third, on the same day as the Bahraini foreign minister’s call to the emir of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) released a Qatari naval vessel and its crew (made up of two Qataris, one Indian and one Palestinian), which was detained on April 30 after entering Emirati territorial waters.
After the release, Qatar's foreign ministry put out a statement saying that Doha had “worked … through all available diplomatic channels and with mediation by friendly states to secure the safe return of the vessel and crew”.
And yet, despite these three events, it is still difficult to imagine this dispute being resolved soon. Qatar and the blockading states — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, known as the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) — have both laid down lines, issued demands and framed narratives since May and June 2017 in ways that make any grand compromise difficult to imagine.
Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi's conditions from the beginning of the Qatar crisis created a zero-sum dispute.
At the same time, Qatar has basically proven itself capable of weathering this blockade and thriving even if the siege becomes a permanent reality.
Within the GCC, both Kuwait and Oman have helped Qatar survive throughout the blockade and internationally a host of countries — namely China, Iran, and Turkey — have also played pivotal roles in Doha’s ability to stand strong despite the embargo.
Moreover, being independent of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s orbit of influence has now become a source of national pride for Qataris, underscoring how this rift has served to shape modern-day Qatari identity.
Given these factors, both Qatar and the ATQ would see the costs of making concessions to the other side as outweighing all perceived benefits, which has been the case since the crisis started nearly two years ago.
For the blockading states, reconciliation with Qatar would have to entail abandoning narratives about Doha’s alleged support for Al Qaeda, the Houthi rebels, Hezbollah, etc.; making peace with a state that supposedly still backs such extremists and appearing weak in the process; or pressuring Qatar into actions that could create an illusion of the blockade having “succeeded”.
At this stage, none of the above seems likely.
The accusations about Qatar supporting violent extremists and Iranian-backed militias too would be difficult for ATQ states to walk away from.
The blockading countries’ unprecedented actions on June 5, 2017, highlighted the extent to which their leaders were serious about portraying Qatar as a dangerous and predatory actor in the Gulf that needed to be isolated.
Unquestionably, without any major change on the part of Doha’s internal and/or external conduct, it would be humiliating for both the Saudi and Abu Dhabi crown princes — Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) — to re-embrace Qatar as a member of the GCC family.
Likewise, given how much support Qatar’s leader has from his country for his rigid position in defiance of all the ATQ’s demands for reconciliation, the emir would not want to appear capitulatory.
This is especially so given that Qatar is not desperate to restore diplomatic and economic ties with its immediate neighbours, thus unwilling to concede much to resolve the GCC rift.
Furthermore, as the Group Chief Executive of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, recently said in response to a question about Qatar granting visas for Egyptians, Doha cannot just pretend like the past nearly two years of the blockade, alleged financial warfare and threats from the ATQ have not happened.
“When you open your arms to Qatar, Qatar will open its arms even bigger for you. But if you become an adversary of Qatar, then we will also treat you as an adversary.”
While the three events that have ensued this month led some GCC experts to speculate that the crisis is slowly winding down, it appears that such optimism is misplaced.
At previous moments in this dispute, certain words from leaders, as well as a phone conversation between MBS and Sheikh Tamim suggested that the two sides were interested in moving toward reconciliation, yet Qatar and the ATQ did not inch any closer to settling the crisis. Whether these recent exchanges can pave the way for settling the GCC crisis is unclear, yet it appears unlikely given the sensitive dynamics shaping this emotional dispute.
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