Qatar’s Back, But the Gulf Arab Dispute Is Unresolved

The Qatar embargo, which has divided Gulf Arabs during almost the entirety of the Donald Trump administration, is finally approaching resolution. Just about everyone’s a winner in the short term, but since none of the underlying disputes have been resolved, the long-term prognosis remains questionable.

On Monday, the eve of the 41st summit meeting of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia announced it was reopening air routes to Qatar Airways and the land border between the two countries. The two other Gulf members of the quartet that had imposed the embargo, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are expected to ease travel and trade restrictions. The fourth member, Egypt, will likely go along.

The news will be warmly welcomed by the U.S., which has been trying to end the dispute among its Gulf Arab allies since it began on June 5, 2017. The Trump administration, which made ending the embargo an outgoing priority, will claim another Middle East policy success. And the incoming Joe Biden administration will be delighted not to inherit this disruptive squabble.

For Qatar, this is a longed-for breakthrough. Doha managed to find short- and medium-term workarounds to the embargo, mainly by strengthening relations with non-Arab neighbors like Turkey and even Iran. But in the long run, Qatar needs to have decent working relations with its larger Gulf Arab neighbors.

What’s unclear is what Qatar has been willing to give in order to get out of its regional isolation.

Doha will be dropping formal complaints and lawsuits against its GCC partners, but there are underlying political and ideological divisions that other Arab countries will expect Qatar to address as well.

The UAE has been especially at odds with Qatar over the legitimacy of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which Doha strongly supports, in mainstream Arab politics. Riyadh shares some of these reservations, but is more incensed by Qatari support for Saudi opposition figures in the region and, allegedly, within Saudi Arabia itself.

The quartet’s main demands when the embargo was first imposed included a clean break with the Muslim Brotherhood and the closure of Qatar’s influential Al Jazeera TV network. It’s clear that channel isn’t going to shut down, but close observers will be watching for a shift in the editorial policies that Qatar’s neighbors believe threaten their interests.

These disputes are deep-seated, and this isn’t the first round of this confrontation. There was a similar, though less intense, version of the same standoff in 2013-14, which was resolved by a set of understandings that were vague and aspirational. Qatar’s commitments were implicit, to be demonstrated in practice rather than enumerated in writing. The embargo in 2017 was the neighbors’ way of saying Doha hadn’t kept its end of the bargain.

Will it do so now? Quite apart from keeping Al Jazeera on air, it is extremely unlikely that Qatar’s deepening ties to Turkey, which greatly exercise the Emiratis and Saudis, will be curtailed.

While the UAE may go along with the lifting of the boycott, its main concerns have not been resolved. Saudi Arabia, however, is more focused on the threat posed by Iran, and any prospect, however slim, to pull Doha away from Tehran is welcome.

For the Saudis, the Qatar boycott had long since reached the point of diminishing returns, but they didn’t see any immediate need to change course. But with the rising tensions with Iran and the imminent arrival of a Biden administration that is amenable to making a deal with Tehran, calculations have changed.

Opening Saudi air routes to Qatar Airways will deprive Tehran of about $100 million paid annually to Tehran for use of routes over Iran. The lifting of the embargo doesn’t mean Qatar will go from being a friend to a foe of Iran, but the Saudis will take comfort from reducing Doha’s dependence on the Islamic Republic, while bringing Gulf Arabs closer together in a pro-American coalition.

How long this rapprochement will last is a different question. The ideological chasm between the UAE and Qatar will remain as wide and as bitter as ever. While deferring to the Saudis, the Emiratis will regard Qatar as being on a kind of probation. The experience after 2014 is not encouraging.

Qatar would be making a big mistake to conclude that it has somehow prevailed in the dispute. The embargo demonstrated that its neighbors can live without Qatar far more easily than Qatar can function in isolation from them.

And since none of the core issues appear to have been resolved, a third Gulf Arab standoff in the foreseeable future remains a distinct possibility.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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