Gulf summit could chart new direction amid Qatar crisis

Both Qatar and its adversaries are playing down a major breakthrough. A summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh is expected to pave the way to a possible thaw.

 Buildings are seen from across the water in Doha, Qatar (photo credit: REUTERS)
Buildings are seen from across the water in Doha, Qatar
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has been more than two and a half years since several Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, broke relations with Qatar. Now a thaw is emerging that could mean Riyadh and Doha begin a new chapter in relations. This would have far-reaching consequences, including in the US where think tanks and media have been co-opted into Gulf politics. But both Qatar and its adversaries are playing down a major breakthrough. A summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh is expected to pave the way to a possible thaw.
Al-Arabiya reported that the meeting on Tuesday is not expected to produce a breakthrough. But the tone is different than in the past. “GCC foreign ministers held a preparatory meeting in Riyadh on Monday ahead of Tuesday’s summit which is expected to focus on regional issues, including maritime security, Iran’s interference in the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian crisis and the war in Yemen.” That’s a lot on the plate for a one-day meeting.
The Saudi king extended and invitation to the Qataris, including Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Al-Arabiya says Qatar is expected to be represented by Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani. The London-based website Asharq al-Awsat said the meeting is the 40th of its kind under the GCC auspices. The Saudi decision to host it “reflects its leadership,” a Saudi source told reporters.
Al-Jazeera in Qatar is also playing up the meeting, arguing that it reflects a journey from stalemate to progress. “We hope that these talks will lead to our progress where we can see an end for the crisis,” said Qatar’s foreign minister. Reports indicate other recent meetings, visits and even a football match smooth the way for better relations. Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani visited Riyadh in October, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Qatar says that it has been subjected to an illegal blockade and that it wants to resolve the crisis. When the crisis began in the spring of 2017, it was not the first time that Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain had complained about Qatar. They view Qatar as meddling in their internal affairs and also seeking too much influence in the region. This has been the case over disputes about the Muslim Brotherhood, which Qatar has tended to support, and policies that range from Gaza to Egypt, Libya and Turkey.
In a sense, this represents a regional and even global conflict. It has tripped up lobbyists and politicians as far away as Washington. This is because both sides sought to mobilize foreign support. But the reality of the dispute is closer to home. Turkish troops came to Qatar to defend the emirate in 2017, and Turkey wants to expand its presence. The issues involved also are linked to Iran’s threat and the Yemen conflict and Riyadh’s more robust role there. But Riyadh has stumbled sometimes, particularly after the murder in Istanbul of former insider turned dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. There are now talks of Oman smoothing relations with Iran and of new naval initiatives and an end to the Yemen war. In this respect, Qatar has weathered the storm and will want to come out of it not having to change its foreign policy, remove Turkish troops or change Al-Jazeera’s line.
The dispute has also tarnished the reputations of some of those involved because both sides sought to mobilize supporters abroad and accuse the others of supporting terrorism or being corrupt and feeble. This means that there will be long-lasting impact on images of both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. UAE and Bahrain have fared better. The role of Western militaries in the Gulf and Iran’s September attack on Saudi Arabian oil installations likely influenced decisions to thaw this conflict as well. The Gulf emirates, which are small but wealthy, need each other. They may have overplayed their hands a bit abroad, revealing that none want real serious conflict, but prefer talks. The US will be happy if they patch things us since the US has bases in the UAE and Qatar, and is sending more forces to the region. Qatar is helping the US with the Taliban talks. Kuwait and Jordan will also be pleased. This means a lot is invested in a forthcoming thaw. The current meeting may show that it is possible to could ignore the eleph
ant in the room.
This has ramifications for Israel and the Palestinians since Qatar has been paying salaries in Gaza and there is warming in Israel-Gulf relations. A thaw could either put some ice on the warming or increase it. In 2018, Qatar did outreach to pro-Israel voices in the US hoping to surmount the conflict through them.