On the eve of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, Kuwait’s foreign ministry announced that Saudi Arabia would be lifting the land, air, and sea blockade of Qatar. Soon after Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani confirmed he would be officially attending the summit, leading to a wave of optimism that the over three-year Gulf rift would soon be mended. Sure enough, the six members of the GCC met for their 41st summit on Tuesday in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, and signed a “solidarity and stability agreement” aimed at ending the 43-month long blockade of Qatar and resolving the GCC rift.
The decisions taken at the GCC summit yesterday are a good sign. Lifting the blockade of Qatar was a crucial first step toward mitigating not just Gulf tensions, but wider strategic and ideological fault lines across the region. However, more confidence building measures on all sides are needed to demonstrate a genuine commitment to alleviating the underlying tensions and competition between Gulf states-notably between UAE and Qatar. It is impossible to erase the political, economic, and social damage done by the blockade over the last three and a half years, within the Gulf region. It is also impossible to turn back time and erase the regional fault lines and proxy wars in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Gulf tensions became a central feature of these disputes, as well as influence peddling across the Middle East and North Africa in the aftermath of 2011 Arab Spring. The GCC dispute impacted the entire region and intensified competition among rising powers. Ironically, it allowed Qatar to develop strategic autonomy in the region and forced it to pursue an even more independent foreign policy; it also helped strengthen Qatar’s relationship with both Turkey and Iran. In short, the goals of the blockade failed, and Qatar has come out of it in a stronger strategic position than before.
The end of the Qatar blockade is one of many necessary steps that must be taken to rebuild trust among the Gulf states. The roots of the dispute, including regional competition in an increasingly multipolar Middle East, differing foreign policy priorities, and opposing views on Islamists, remain largely unchanged. Moreover, the Saudis, through Kuwaiti mediation, led the charge to resolve the GCC dispute when the most deeply rooted tension lay between Qatar and UAE and concerns the legacy of the 2011 Arab Spring protests and the role of Islamist parties across the region. In other words, many question marks remain as to how lifting the Qatar blockade and an easing of Gulf tensions will impact wider regional questions. After all, Gulf tensions pre-date the 2017 blockade. Here are a few important areas to follow closely.
The Biden Administration and Iran
Just as the Trump administration played a major role in greenlighting the June 2017 blockade, the incoming Biden administration likely helped in advancing an end to this dispute. Countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt have built their foreign and regional policies in recent years in partnership with a US administration that prioritized arms deals and short-sighted policy priorities over regional stability and human rights. Biden’s incoming team has made it clear that it would be seriously re-evaluating the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and other regional allies that are violating human rights and fomenting regional conflict.
It is no secret that the Biden administration’s top Middle East priority is finding a path for the United States to return to the Iran Nuclear Deal. The lifting of the Qatar blockade and easing of GCC tensions could go a long way in ensuring a new deal and quelling regional tensions. However, as Iran continues to flout compliance and seize vessels, it is important to follow how the reunified GCC will react. Qatar has an important relationship with Iran, which only deepened after the June 2017 blockade (the exact opposite of what the blockading countries were hoping for). Iran and Qatar share the world’s largest gas field. Countries like Iran and Turkey sent airplanes of food to Doha after the initial shock of the blockade led to food shortages and panic, and Qatar is unlikely to throw them under the bus in favor of the (formerly) blockading countries. Doha will perhaps try to walk a fine line and play a mediation role between Iran and other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, not unlike Oman has done in the past.
A major regional and Gulf rivalry fault-line in today’s Middle East is the Libyan conflict. Turkey and Qatar support the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli while UAE, Egypt, and other countries support the Tobruk government and General Khalifa Haftar. Egypt has recently met with both sides of the conflict, in a marked shift from previously threatening military confrontation with Turkey in Libya, revealing a newfound impetus to resolve the conflict and limit its military and diplomatic support for Haftar’s eastern forces. The lifting of the Qatar blockade and easing of Gulf tensions could directly help to limit foreign meddling in Libya’s proxy war. It could also act as a confidence building measure between the external actors supporting the opposing side of the war—notably Turkey, Qatar, UAE, and Egypt. If the UAE backs down in Libya, this could translate to more circumscribed actions taken by Russian mercenaries there. Afterall, the Pentagon found that UAE could be financing the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries there. Following how UAE reacts to GCC reconciliation and whether this translates into policy shifts across the region, and especially in Libya, will reveal how serious UAE is about easing tensions with Qatar and promoting regional stability.
Another helpful way to measure the seriousness of Gulf state commitments to ending tensions will be whether many countries release the many individuals they have arrested for ties with Qatar, for criticizing the blockade of Qatar, and for their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. If Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain are serious about GCC solidarity and mending fences with Qatar, an important confidence building measure would be to release some political prisoners. For example, Saudi cleric Salman el-Awda, 61, had been convicted on 37 charges related “to his alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents” and is facing the death penalty. Egypt also imprisoned hundreds for alleged connections to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. It would go a long way to build trust and confidence, if, for example, Egypt released the daughter and son-in-law of Qatar-based Islamic scholar Yusef al-Qaradawi. Ola al-Qaradawi and her husband Hosam Khalaf have both been detained in Egypt, without charges, since the Qatari blockade began in June 2017. Beyond these more high-profile political prisoners, there are hundreds of others who should be released in a sign of genuine Gulf reconciliation. Whether these prisoner releases happen will offer some insight as to how serious the blockading countries are about ending the Gulf rift.
The decision to isolate Qatar had enormous political, economic, and societal implications. It tore apart families and communities across the Gulf, a region where citizens often travel, live, work, and study in other Gulf states, as well as Egypt. The blockade forced Qatari citizens out of the blockading states and vice-versa, threatening families, jobs, study and scholarship, and social protections. The political dispute trickled down in an especially pernicious manner across the region. Beyond the societal impacts, Qatar was isolated politically and economically in an effort to force its foreign policy priorities into better alignment with the Saudi-Emirati regional access.
If this easing of tensions is to seriously move forward, more steps need to be taken. More confidence building measures to promote dialogue and mitigate tensions need to take place both within the Gulf region and beyond, in order to help quell the multitude of proxy wars across the region. A major regional test of GCC unity will relate to how it works with the Biden administration and the role these countries decide to play in the future of the Iran Nuclear Deal, as well as how rival Gulf states and their allies engage in regional conflicts like Libya. However, it’s important to remain cautious about Gulf unity. Competition among Gulf states has reverberated across the Middle East and North Africa since well before the 2017 blockade, and regional fault-lines pitting the Turkey-Qatar regional alliance against a Saudi-UAE-Egypt will be impossible to remove overnight. Nonetheless, the lifting of the blockade against Qatar is an important first step toward greater regional cooperation and conflict resolution in the Middle East.