Gulf reconciliation: Impact and implications for Israel - analysis

Qatar’s double game has never been clear.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Bahrain's Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Oman's Deputy Prime Minister Fahad bin Mahmood, Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani pose for a family photo. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Bahrain's Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Oman's Deputy Prime Minister Fahad bin Mahmood, Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani pose for a family photo.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the last few months there have been constant rumors that the Gulf crisis that began in 2017 might be resolved with Qatar mending ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain. This is linked to a wider discussion about whether Turkey, a key ally of Qatar and a country that sent troops to Doha in 2017, might also reconcile with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia or other states.
Much of this discussion is wrapped in media rumors and stories, some of which are fed by Ankara or Doha to international media to try to influence Washington or other countries.
Israel’s new ties with the UAE and Bahrain are important in this discussion because Turkey has been one of the most hostile countries to Israel in recent years and Qatar is a key supporter of the Gaza Strip. Turkey openly backs Hamas, providing its terrorist leaders a red carpet twice this year and receiving condemnation from the US State Department for its hosting of the group.
Qatar plays a more complex game, having hosted Hamas in the past and funding Hamas-run Gaza. Although it does not issue the same extremist statements as Ankara, countries in the region have accused Qatar of pushing extremist agendas in the past.
What this comes down to is a multilayered puzzle. Qatar and Turkey have both backed the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates in various countries, while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE see the Brotherhood as terrorists. This is part of a global struggle for many Islamic institutions, and it should not be seen as merely a small Gulf crisis. It has worldwide ramifications from Malaysia to Pakistan to Libya.
For instance, Egypt and the UAE have backed groups in eastern Libya linked to Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey sends arms – in violation of an embargo – to Tripoli to back western Libya. Turkey has been an implacable foe of the Egyptian government. Turkey threatened to cut relations with the UAE when it signed a peace deal with Israel. That is how seriously Turkey takes its crusade to isolate Israel. Ankara’s rhetoric often sounds a lot like Iran when it comes to supporting extremism.
The question now arises as to whether Gulf reconciliation will happen, at what level and what ramifications it may have. The crisis that began in 2017 took place in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and a major Arab and Islamic summit. This put wind in Riyadh’s sails.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was seen as a driving force behind this crisis. He became a lightning rod of critique in Qatari media, and Qatar sought to influence world opinion against him. This tied in to the hosting of Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi palace insider, in Qatar and later Istanbul. He was killed in the Saudi Consulate in 2018, which was part of this larger crisis.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia intervened in the war in Yemen in 2015. With UAE support, it was seeking to stop the Iranian-backed Houthis from taking Aden. However, that war soured as well, and the Gulf crisis helped fuel negative views of Saudi’s role.
That means reconciliation in the Gulf is also about public relations. Both Riyadh and Doha have gone to war in Washington over lobbyists. Doha went so far as to fly a bunch of pro-Israel voices to Qatar in 2017 and 2018 to try to boost its ties with the Trump administration. It also sought strategic dialogue with the US. The US has a naval base in Bahrain and air bases in Qatar and the UAE. For the US, reconciliation was important.
Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state and an oil man, pushed for the countries to patch things up. Jared Kushner and Mike Pompeo have as well. For Riyadh and its allies, what is important is to stop Qatar meddling internally or hosting extremists on Qatari media.
But there is more going on. Together with pro-Iran groups, Qatar has harnessed human-rights groups to slam its enemies. With US President-elect Joe Biden coming into office, there are many calculations at work in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.
THERE ARE questions about whether Biden will be tough on Riyadh. Also, the UAE wants the F-35 sales it got in the last several months to go through. The Abraham Accords are also important. Some have asserted that Qatar and Saudi Arabia could both recognize Israel.
Could the last days of the Trump administration create some kind of deal in which Qatar recognizes Israel in exchange for Saudi Arabia pushing to let Qatar back into the Gulf fold? Qatar and Israel had limited relations dating to the 1990s, which at the time were warmer than Israel had with Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Things have changed now for various reasons.
What might reconciliation mean for the peace deals? On the one hand, bringing Qatar back into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) could come with demands Qatar reduce its military ties to Turkey or reduce support for groups in Gaza, while still supporting civilians there.
Qatar will want to save face and not do this openly. However, in the past, it appears Qatar once pulled an anti-Israel program to try to reduce tensions in Washington. That means Qatar appears flexible to changing messaging to meet its goals.
Bahrain is not on board with the new reconciliation discussions, France24 reported, suggesting that it is being used as a “proxy” for Saudi Arabia. This has been rumored before relating to the peace accords. Bahrain was said to want peace first, but the UAE went first for a variety of reasons.
Riyadh led the GCC intervention in Bahrain in 2011 to stop protests that looked like they might threaten the kingdom. Everyone understands what is at stake in these discussions. Iran tensions hang over them as well.
Rumors of some deal go back years. So far, it has not happened. Turkey’s Anadolu and Al Jazeera in Qatar both push these rumors. That means this could be misinformation.
However, there are questions about what it might mean for Israel and the peace deals. If Qatar returns to the fold, could it use its newfound “inside the tent” approach to continue to push for Hamas to reconcile with Ramallah and bring Hamas activists into the West Bank? Could Doha push for the UAE or Riyadh to suggest this approach?
It’s clear from some messaging in Egypt that Egypt has wanted reconciliation among the Palestinians as well. Could this be the long-term game of Doha to get the Palestinians to reconcile and then bring Hamas into the West Bank to create leverage with Jerusalem? Would this then be viewed as a positive role for the Gulf to play in the Palestinian areas, but with the caveat that now Turkey and Qatar have a wider role close to Jerusalem, to stoke new tensions when they need to? Israel would not look kindly on that, probably.
Qatar’s double game has never been clear. On the one hand, it appears open to Israel, and its friends say it is astute and could normalize relations with Israel. It has tried to sell itself to pro-Israel groups, including far-right pro-Israel voices, as being open to Israel. But at the end of the day, Qatar’s long-term role has been with far-right Islamist groups, not moderates.
Yet it claims to be open to hosting Israelis for sports events and being moderate. There were Hanukkah celebrations in Dubai, not Doha, in December. It talks about doing things, but when it comes to actually doing them, there is no real verification that it has changed.
The question is whether Ankara and Doha are just paying lip service to appear like the “good cop” for the Biden administration, or whether they will change. So far, Ankara hasn’t changed. It still backs extremists in Syria, it has ravaged Afrin, and it stirs up trouble in the Mediterranean.
These countries could have used their influence with Hamas to change it and change its antisemitic terrorism-supporting message. They didn’t do that. This illustrates that when it comes to reducing extremism, it’s not clear if these countries will do it.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have done more than just lip service. They want change, moderation and tolerance.
The question is whether Gulf reconciliation means that Qatar changes its role and reduces its reliance on Turkey and links to Iran, or whether the opposite happens and it seeks to open up doors for groups such as Hamas via its reconciliation.
Cairo and Riyadh likely would not want any opening to the Brotherhood after years in which they went as far as possible to crush groups linked to it. But they, too, want warmer relations with the new US administration.
Those are the question marks. What does Qatar’s game plan mean for the peace deals and Hamas and the Palestinians? Will it stoke tensions or reduce them? Will it mean more peace and normalization, or will it put the brakes on?
Israel, pragmatically, has been able to deal with Qatar in the past and will in the future. But Israel also knows that Ankara and its links to Doha and Hamas, represent a hostility that has not changed.
“Trust, but verify,” the saying goes. Ankara and Doha have not veritably changed. Many other peace-promoting countries have.