The recent decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to lift the blockade against the state of Qatar comes at a crucial point in the regional politics. Bahrain and the UAE hastened to normalize relations with the state of Israel late last year. The normalization of relations with Israel invited wide condemnation in the Middle East and some parts of the world due to the continued oppression and occupation of Palestine. The lifting of the blockade also came on the eve of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States (US).
Politically, the blockade pushed Qatar to establish strong relations with a number of countries, particularly Iran and Turkey. The decisive support of Turkey and Iran helped Qatar survive the blockade that ended with the Al Ula agreement. Although the details of the agreement that led to the lifting of the blockade on 05 January 2021 were not made public, there are some who view this development as a win for the state of Qatar. Qatar is arguably one of the big winners. What started with a bang which shook the monarchy of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has ended in a whimper. (1). However, there are reports suggesting that Qatar made certain compromises including a possible insistence on Al Jazeera to tone down its criticism of Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, member countries of the GCC and Egypt. In 2017, the blockading states gave a list of 13 conditions (2) to Qatar to lift the blockade. One of the conditions was to shut down Al Jazeera and associated affiliates. Qatar rejected all the demands at the time.
This piece examines the new role that Qatar might play within the GCC and argues that Qatar is likely to use its new position within the GCC as a political conduit henceforth between Turkey, Iran and the GCC. Furthermore, the piece also argues that the lifting of the blockade could have come at some cost for Qatar involving a possible insistence on changes in Al Jazeera Media Network’s coverage of the GCC member countries.
Qatar’s main concession for the lifting of the blockade
The details of the negotiations and their outcomes between Qatar and the blockading countries were not released to the public. It is therefore difficult to know precisely what compromises, if any, the state of Qatar made to reach the agreement. Suffice it to say that Saudi Arabia and other countries in the GCC would like Qatar to put pressure on Al Jazeera, particularly its Arabic channel, to tone done its coverage of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and other GCC member states.
Although the foreign minister of Qatar, Mohammed Bin Abdurrahman Al Thani, continues to insist that Al Jazeera is an independent institution, there are reports suggesting that Al Jazeera will be put under pressure henceforth. Actually, the process has already started. Watching the network in the days after the blockade ended, one could feel the difference in the tone of the coverage. Bulletins no longer include regular news on “violations” by the Saudi regime. The channel even rebranded the Saudi Crown Prince, who it had vociferously attacked just a few weeks ago for “tarnishing the image of the Saudi state.” Now Bin Salman is represented as a rising peacemaker engaged in relations of “fraternity.”
The Emir of Kuwait, Nawaf, Al Ahmed, Al Jaber Al Sabah who took over the mediating role after the death of former Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed Al Sabah, shuttled between Saudi Arabia and Qatar making sure that messages were delivered personally to avoid possible leaks.
Understandably in June 2017, details of discussions including the list of conditions were leaked to the media prematurely. It was those leaks that revealed that one of the demands made by the blockading nations to Qatar was to shut down Al Jazeera Media Network. It was perhaps this demand that gained Qatar empathy from some countries, as it portrayed the blockading nations as dictatorships. The demand to shut down Al Jazeera gave ammunition to Qatar and its supporters. Media organizations across the globe also joined in and sided with Al Jazeera against closure. The backlash from the demand to close Al Jazeera forced the blockading nations to change their tune in this regard, as they attempted to spin themselves out of the difficult situation. They issued a statement clarifying their position that the demand to close Al Jazeera was not necessarily referring to the entire Al Jazeera Media Network, but rather to its Arabic channel. The Economist described it as “an extraordinary, extraterritorial assault on free speech. It is as if China had ordered Britain to abolish the BBC.” In the Times, columnist Hugo Rifkind had an even sharper warning: “Grandiose as it might sound, this could be the greatest assault on press freedom in the past 50 years.” (3). Al Jazeera has continued with its comprehensive journalism and has been unrelenting in its extensive coverage of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 a year after the blockade.
Qatar’s Resilience in the Face of the Blockade
Having said that, Qatar has insisted that the blockade has not had a strong impact on its economy; instead, it has allowed Qatar to be self-sufficient. The State of Qatar successfully ensured food security, thanks to the National Strategy for Food Security which helped in brushing aside the impact of the three-year-long blockade on the country. The food strategy of Qatar is based on four points which include local production, strategic reserve, international trade and supply in local market. This strategy helped Qatar to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of a number of fresh food items by boosting the local food production in vegetables, dairy, meat and fish with the help of advanced technologies. (4).
Qatar has downplayed the blockade noting that Qatar could withstand the blockade for many years. Notwithstanding the show of strength, and exhibition of self-sufficiency, it was the cross-border people-to-people relations between the Qataris and Saudis that perhaps had the hardest impact and continued to pressure the government. The blockade made it difficult for families across the border to visit each other. It also prohibited easy travelling for Qataris wishing to perform religious pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the blockade slowly impacted the national cohesion inside Qatar, foreign policy and politics. Therefore, notwithstanding the continued show of confidence for the Qatari government, domestic mood and attitude continued to pressure the government for reconciliation notwithstanding the rhetoric.
Qatar becomes a power broker in the region
The blockade has undoubtedly changed the position of Qatar in the region. The new alliances and strengthening of relations with certain countries will certainly impact how Qatar deals with GCC member countries moving forward. The new relationships Qatar gained during the blockade also place the country in a strategic position within the GCC. The GCC will need Qatar as it tries to chart a new political trajectory, cleanse itself from negative global image and attempt to extract itself from the costly conflicts in the region.
First, as already stated in the first paragraph, the incoming US administration of President Joe Biden has committed to reviving the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). This is likely to bring Iran back into international politics and could further empower Iran, as crippling economic sanctions are likely to be relaxed. Saudi Arabia and Israel alike will remain opposed to an empowered Iran for decades. Yet, Iran continues to support certain factions in the region. That said, Qatar could be a key political conduit in easing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It could help re-establish back channels between these erstwhile regional rivals.
Second, the strong Qatar-Turkey relationship will undoubtedly also determine the future political trajectory of the GCC henceforth. The role of Turkey, a key member of NATO, in the war in Syria must not be downplayed, particularly now as indications suggests an easing of relations between the government of Bashar al Assad and some Gulf nations including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Syria is an expensive war, and it also added tension between the GCC and Turkey. Qatar could play an important role in easing tensions between the GCC and Turkey by mediating for coordination of actions in Syria. The Arab League recognized the Syrian political opposition coalition in 2013. But now, Qatar appears to be Turkey’s only firm ally in the fight, while other Arab states rebuild relations with Assad. (5).
Furthermore, Qatar and Turkey support the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE support the opposing forces in Libya led by General Khalifa Haftar. In August 2020, the Turkish government strengthened its involvement in Libya by signing a protocol with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and Qatar earlier this week, establishing a tripartite coordination center for military training and cooperation (6). Now that Qatar is back in the GCC, it could play an important role in pushing for a lasting peaceful solution in Libya. Importantly, the Saudi Arabian led coalition has been battling the Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. The war in Yemen has been very costly for the Saudi led coalition. The withdrawal of Qatar from the coalition further added human and financial strain on the coalition. The return of Qatar and its anticipated financial contribution in general to the coffers of the GCC, not necessarily in funding the war in Yemen, will certainly assist the GCC to achieve its other missions. Qatar can assist in establishing back channels between the Saudi led coalition and the Houthis. and could use its strong relationship with Iran in this regard. Iran has been funding Houthis for the better part of the war. Qatar’s renewed role within the GCC and its relationship with Iran could make these options available, even if the Saudi led coalition intentions is to stay the course.
Saudi Arabia’s close personal and political relationship with Donald Trump could be an impediment in fostering healthy relationship with the new Biden administration. What could further complicate matters for Saudis is that Trump has not ruled out running for presidency in 2024. It is unlikely therefore that Biden will open up to Saudi Arabia and UAE given personal relationships with Trump. This leaves Qatar to play an important role between the new Biden administration and the GCC given its neutrality. Lastly, Qatar could additionally play a significant role in assisting to mend relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Qatar could convince Turkey to adopt a different route in trying to resolve the Khashoggi matter.
Many Qataris will certainly welcome the lifting of the ban by its neighbors. The inconveniences of travelling from Qatar to other parts of the world were not only impacting the lives of Qataris but many people around the world and expatriates in Qatar. It will also be welcomed by businesses inside the blockading nations particularly Saudi Arabia whose economy has been hit hard by a number of factors. The Gulf is slated to earn $270 billion less in oil revenue compared to last year (7). This is to a large extent because the region’s economic heavyweight, Saudi Arabia, has been sinking deeper into recession amid the coronavirus pandemic. Importantly, it is the families across the borders in Qatar and Saudi Arabia who will feel relieved. Most will now be able to visit families without the complications of having to go through a third country before reaching their destinations.
The agreement that lifted the blockade will also calm charged political feelings within the conservatives in Qatar. Many were beginning to question the rationale of the “stubborn political posture” of their government regarding the blockade. There was a sense of patriotism after Bin Salman and Emir of Qatar Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani hugged at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The hug between two leaders was repeatedly broadcasted in Qatar and Saudi Arabia highlighting the beginning of a new era in the Gulf and Arab politics. The warm greetings and a hug were a symbol many in both countries have been waiting for since the blockade began. “The gesture worked very well for Saudis, particularly for Bin Salman. Whilst Bahrain and the UAE prioritized reconciliation with Israel, a move criticized by many in the region, Bin Salman preferred to mend ties with Qatar. Judging by the reception of the news of the agreement and reaction on social media of the warm greeting between Bin Hamad and Bin Salman, Qatar will want to maintain and promote the political mood in the country.
Furthermore, the lifting of the blockade on the other hand places Qatar in a new significant political position within the GCC. Qatar is likely to assume a much more important role than what it played in the past within the bloc. Whereas in the past, perception suggested that UAE and Saudi Arabia dominated the direction of the GCC including its foreign policy, Qatar’s relationships with a number of strategic nations around the world give it a new edge within the GCC. Qatar, which is perceived “as a victim of regional dictatorships” returns to the GCC empowered with a strong political independence and credibility.
TRT World, The winners and Losers of Qatar Blockade, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/the-winners-and-the-losers-of-the-qatar-blockade-42989, 25 Jan 2021
Al Jazeera, Arab states issue 13 demands to end Qatar-Gulf crisis, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/7/12/arab-states-issue-13-demands-to-end-qatar-gulf-crisis, 25 Jan 2021
The Guardian, Al Jazeera journalists: This isn’t the first time we’ve come under threat, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jul/04/al-jazeera-journalists-this-isnt-the-first-time-weve-come-under-threat, 25 Jan 2021
The Peninsula, 3 years of dignity and prosperity: Qatar achieves self sufficiency in food sector, https://thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/05/06/2020/3-years-of-dignity-and-prosperity-Qatar-achieves-self-sufficiency-in-food-sector, 25 Jan 2021
DW, Syria: Erdogan left out in the cold by Arab states in anti-Assad fight, https://www.dw.com/en/syria-erdogan-left-out-in-the-cold-by-arab-states-in-anti-assad-fight/a-52578130, 26 Jan 2021
Middle East Eye, In Libya Turkey and Qatar deepen their footprint amid deadlock in negotiation, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/libya-turkey-qatar-military-deal-haftar-gna, 25 Jan 2021
Energy Vice, Saudi Arabia’s deep recession and collapsing oil prices : Can it recover?, https://www.energyvoice.com/opinion/263014/saudi-arabias-deep-recession-and-collapsing-oil-prices-can-it-recover/, 25 Jan 2021