Saudi Arabia and Qatar reconciliation: What might change in the region

In some ways the Trump administration helped fuel the break in the Gulf, or at least made Riyadh feel that it might get concessions from Qatar

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)
Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s crown prince and prime minister, was the first regional leader to arrive in Saudi Arabia for the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council summit on Tuesday. The event will be different from the last several years because Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim will take part.
This signals a major change in the Gulf after years in which Saudi Arabia led the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to break relations with Doha. It’s not clear how far reconciliation will go, but it is an important shift in the region.
It is a shift that US President Donald Trump’s administration pushed, especially through Jared Kushner, who shuttled back and forth to the region, pushing peace deals with Israel and also Riyadh-Doha talks. In some ways, the Trump administration helped fuel the break in the Gulf, or at least made Riyadh feel it might get concessions from Qatar, and now the administration may bookend this as well.
The multilayered issues that affect relations between Gulf states link them not only to the region but to the world. In some ways, the struggle between Riyadh and Doha was linked to larger issues relating to the Muslim Brotherhood and global Islamic discussions. This tied it to Turkey, which sent troops to Qatar in 2017, and to Pakistan, Malaysia and other states.
The wider dispute also involved Egypt and Turkey, at odds because Ankara backed the Muslim Brotherhood there. There is a proxy war in Libya, where Turkey also sent troops. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have backed Khalifa Haftar, and drones from China have been sent to help Haftar. Turkey sent drones as well.
In Somalia, Turkey built a base, so the UAE invested in Somaliland. In Sudan, Turkey sought to lease an island, and yet now Sudan has a new government and is seeking peace with Israel. Turkey opposed the Abraham Accords, and Qatari media and its allies operationalized narratives framing the new peace deals as “authoritarian.”
THAT MEANS what we are seeing is not just about Gulf monarchs; it is part of a much more complex series of issues. This goes back decades, and it also specifically goes back about 10 years to the Arab Spring. Back in the days of protests in 2011, the GCC led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain against protests there that appeared to threaten the monarchy.
This was symbolic. The toppling of the government in Egypt and Libya, as well as Tunisia and the civil war in Syria, all changed regional calculations. The Brotherhood was banned across most of the Gulf, except in Qatar, while groups like Hamas and Hezbollah got the cold shoulder.
But Turkey increased support for Hamas, and Qatar kept funding Gaza. The message from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi was that they wanted “stability.” Qatar was accused of spreading chaos.
After the Gulf crisis began, Qatar’s response was not only to grow closer with Turkey and Iran, but also to use media, think tanks, human-rights groups and others to spread negative stories about Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. This was a clear campaign, using dubious methods, such as spreading rumors that targeted Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.
This also led to reactions in Riyadh and likely to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. This illustrates that what began in 2017 as merely a war of words and cutting off airspace and borders had very real ramifications.
For instance, Qatar was accused of supporting all manner of groups, including rumors about illicit funding for drones to the Houthis in Yemen, among other stories. In addition, Qatari media and its friends in Turkey and elsewhere sought to spotlight Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
Huge amounts of money were spent to lobby European countries and Washington. Pro-Israel right-wing voices were even invited to Doha to try to get favors with the Trump administration and sell Qatar’s image. Saudi Arabia, which was pitching Vision 2030 and hosting the G20 and other summits, was subjected to a flood of negative stories, including claims it was detaining human-rights activists.
Now the war of words may be reduced. The flood of negative stories, some of which were entirely false and others merely biased, may dry up. For Gulf media outlets, which are partisan anyway, there was never a question that narratives were being pushed from the top.
But for Westerners, including some former human-rights activists and journalists who went to work for one side or another over the last three years, there may be a message in the inbox to tone down the narrative.
Proponents of claims that Saudi Arabia is “authoritarian,” but not Turkey or Qatar, or groups that are solely devoted to critiquing the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or solely devoted to slamming Qatar, will likely find there is less interest in pushing this divisive narrative.
The voices of former “intelligence” officials who came forward over the last several years to write articles about one side or another may also suddenly go back into the shadows; their work has been done. Think tanks that were asked to host conferences bashing one monarchy or another and voices conjured up to slam Egypt or Qatar based on some salacious story may stop.
THIS LEADS to questions about whether the change in narrative and new relations will lead to changes on the ground. Will conflicts from Yemen to Libya be reduced? Will Turkey’s militaristic adventurism slow down?
Turkey also has talked up reconciliation. What will the effect be on Iran, which continues to try to hijack Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon? Will Iran find that it can’t prey on divisions in the Gulf as easily? What will it mean for the incoming Biden administration and its tendency to be tougher on Egypt and Saudi Arabia? What will it mean for the Abraham Accords? Will other countries join the peace deals, or will new focus on Gulf harmony lead to a colder shoulder for Israel?
What will happen with Hamas reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, which it appears many countries want, but which Israel may be less enthusiastic about? Will the reconciliation lead to a new era, or will there be some backsliding? What will it mean for US foreign military sales, whether F-35s for the UAE or other massive purchases in the region?
Many questions remain, but what is clear is that at least some of the narratives we have heard over the last year will likely change. The caricatures we heard over the last year about Saudi Arabia, which was once heralded for the hajj, Vision 2030 and new tourism opportunities, suddenly were being critiqued, and the stories about Qatar’s role throughout the region may shift.
For Westerners who made a living off selling “Qatar is bad” or “Saudi Arabia is bad,” the message may now be: “Qatar is fine; Saudi is fine,” a less interesting story. For those being backed in Tripoli, Tunisia, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere by one side or the other, there may be questions about whether this might heal some local scars or whether the proxy conflicts will continue.
The question is whether the push for stability in the region, a major vision of Abu Dhabi, will be cemented by this. Will stability increase in places like Iraq or other areas? Ten years after the Arab Spring, a new era could be upon us, with peace deals, a new US administration and reconciliation in the Gulf.
Or it could be the calm before the storm as Iran, Hezbollah and their friends seek to capitalize and move forward with the instability they have spread in places such as Iraq.