The meeting on Tuesday between Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was hailed as a breakthrough that brought together two feuding parties who were finally willing to resolve their differences.
But as the two leaders gathered at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the southern Saudi region of Al-Ula there was no mention of concessions, or further ultimatums, such as those that had led to the rift. The detente seemed borne more of exhaustion than compromise; the talk more of brotherly unity than lessons learned, and the end to it all more about the incoming US president than regional realpolitik.
Wins from the three year dispute, which saw Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the GCC oust Qatar from the alliance amid a list of seemingly unmet demands, are hard to define. Not so the cost, both economically and politically. Qatar bore the burden of the former, while Saudi Arabia shouldered much of the latter, but the final toll has fallen on the very issue that the Saudi-led sanctions aimed to safeguard – Gulf solidarity.
When the ambitious heir to the Saudi throne, together with the UAE ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, moved against Qatar in late 2017, the charge sheet against the tiny Gulf state was long. They, and other GCC members, as well as Egypt, accused their neighbour of backing Iran’s ambitions, and supporting Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood – a preoccupation of the UAE leadership.
A growing alliance with Turkey was also seen as a threat, and the removal of a Turkish garrison from Qatar listed as another demand. By Riyadh’s reckoning, its recalcitrant neighbour could be brought to heel, and the region would know that Saudi Arabia was under new management and not afraid to assert itself so visibly.
Except, it didn’t work out that way. Qatar, the smallest – and richest per capita – of the Gulf states had long tried to position itself as a go between on regional issues, a country that could serve all parties, without being beholden to any. It contested that its relations with Iran and support for Islamist groups should be viewed through that prism, and dug in as the accusations flew from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It had the reserves to sweat out blockades and a friend in Ankara, which it could – and increasingly did – turn to.
Qatar and the Islamist leaning government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became closer than ever over the last three years. Together with the remnants of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, in exile in Turkey, they became the linchpin of an axis, up against Prince Mohammed in Riyadh, Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi and Egyptian leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi – who see their regimes as more aligned with Arab nationalism, and view the rival alliance as a strategic threat. In Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha, state media helped deepen the faultlines and enmity replaced any chance of reconciliation – particularly as Turkey and Saudi Arabia faced off in the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, carried out in Istanbul by Saudi royal court aides.
Over the past year, Riyadh had led attempts to break the ice, receiving the Qatari foreign minister and hosting the national football side. However, it took events further away to force a breakthrough – the ousting of Donald Trump – a staunch Saudi ally – from the White House, and the imminent arrival of Joe Biden, whom GCC leaders fear will take a softer line on an even bigger foe, Iran.
After Biden’s election win last November, resolving the Gulf dispute became a lead priority. It could be cast as a trust building measure to the incoming president; something to take to the table when talk turns to Iran, with whom the Trump regime had avowedly tussled.
Qatar, preparing to hold the 2022 football World Cup could do without further headaches, and also benefit from a diplomatic reset. Its precondition for a rapprochement was that it not be seen to be cowed into concessions.
And, as talk in Al-Ula turned to fraternal bonds and common foes, there was no attempt to grandstand by either side. State media in Qatar had dutifully changed its tune, with Al Jazeera Arabic airing a breathless tribute to the Saudi capital Riyadh, and it’s Saudi counterpart touting unity. A cooperation agreement was signed in private – unlike the public shaming of 2017.
Wounds however, remain raw. And it remains to be seen whether rallying against a common foe – Iran will be enough to overcome a spat that is seen in some regional and global circles as pointless and damaging. A fear remains that the detente may only tape over a faultline that has deepened over three unnecessary years.