Approximately three years after a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of four Middle Eastern countries cut ties with Qatar, the Saudi Foreign Minister announced on Tuesday that Riyadh and its three Arab allies would restore full ties with Doha. Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani attended a gathering of Gulf Arab states earlier this week, and was photographed inside a vehicle with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia led an Arab transport blockade against Qatar, ostensibly to punish Doha for its ties with radical Islamist groups. The bigger motivation probably was to pressure Qatar into reducing diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival in the region.
Coalition countries put 13 demands as conditions to resume relations, including shutting news organisations such as Al Jazeera, closing a Turkish military base in the country, and downgrading ties with Tehran.
Qatar called the embargo a violation of international laws and instead, strengthened ties with Iran and Turkey. Importantly, Gulf Co-operation Council members Kuwait and Oman broke ranks with the Saudi group, and Kuwait sought to assume the role of mediator between the coalition and Qatar.
Qatar in the Middle East
Over the last four decades, Qatar has gone from being one of the poorest Gulf states to one of the wealthiest — the presence of large gas reserves contributing significantly in helping it to become an influential player in the region’s politics. Qatar has also used its wealth and influence on the wider global stage.
Qatar shares a huge gas field with Iran, which is an incentive for it to retain good relations with the Shiite regime in Tehran. This is a strong irritant for Sunni Saudi Arabia, which seeks to control the geopolitics of the Middle East. Qatar’s support for the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Islamist groups in Syria are also major areas of contention. Qatar has denied backing al-Qaeda and Islamic State, however.
Breakthrough in crisis
United States President Donald Trump had expressed support for the Saudi-led embargo, and called Qatar a “funder of terror”. This was surprising given Qatar’s close ties with the US and its allies, and the fact that the country hosts a massive American military facility at the al-Udeid air base. Trump did an about-turn in 2018, however, and praised Qatar’s efforts to combat terrorism.
The breakthrough came in late 2020, the result of sustained Kuwaiti mediation efforts and intensified US pressure on the Gulf coalition. Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner visited Saudi and Qatar in December. Kushner was among the senior US officials present at the GCC summit in al-Ula this week.
A Reuters report on Tuesday quoted Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser al-Sabah as saying that “an agreement has been reached to open airspace and land and sea borders between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as of this evening”. Bloomberg reported that Saudi Arabia’s Rotana Media Group had deleted a hate song against Qatar from YouTube that was created in 2017.