The GCC Split With Qatar Will Mend, But Slowly

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The 40th Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh this week did not, as some had hoped, bring to an end the isolation of Qatar. But it did show that relations between the parties on either side of the embargo continue to improve, suggesting that their dispute will be overcome as slowly and incrementally as it developed.

As with other recent summits, the Qatar’s ruler was invited to Riyadh; this time, there was some optimism Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani might attend, not least to reciprocate for the participation of other GCC soccer teams in the recent Gulf Cup in Doha. Instead, the emir instead sent his prime minister, Abdullah Bin Nasser Al Thani.

Was it, or was it not, a gesture of goodwill? On the one hand, it was the highest-level Qatari participation in a GCC summit since the start of the embargo. On the other, the prime minister has attended more routine Gulf Arab meetings. This perfectly sums up the state of tension between an ongoing stalemate and a slowly developing rapprochement.

First, a quick recap. In June 2017, three GCC states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—along with Egypt formally isolated Qatar, cutting diplomatic ties and transportation links. The embargo was more than a “boycott,” as the quartet put it, and less than a “blockade,” as Doha and its allies described it.

The goal was to force Qatar to abandon policies of support for opposition movements in other Arab countries, and its close relations with non-Arab regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. The quartet accuses Qatar of backing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, left-wing Arab nationalists, and terrorist groups like the Taliban and Hamas. Also, Doha hosts Al Jazeera, the TV network with an editorial line that tends to favor all anti-status quo and oppositional forces in the region.

The embargo was the culmination of years of bickering, including an earlier break in relations in 2014 over much the same set of issues.

Each side hoped to force the other to capitulate by winning support from the U.S. Initially, President Donald Trump seemed to favor the quartet, while his Department of Defense was sympathetic to Qatar, and the State Department wanted to mediate between the quarreling Arabs.

After months of skillful diplomacy in Washington, and a series of agreements with the U.S., ranging from the monitoring of terrorism-financing to resolving civil-aviation disputes, Qatar was hopeful that Trump would intervene on its behalf. The quartet restricted its attentions largely to the White House while the Qataris also took their case to the broader Washington policy conversation, with considerable success.

In the end, however, both parties were disappointed: the U.S., mindful of its vital political, military, diplomatic and intelligence ties to them all, refused to take sides.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Iran came to Qatar’s aid, providing it with various forms of reassurance—ranging from new flight routes and emergency food supplies in the early days of the embargo to military displays of support. As a result, Qatar was able to weather the onslaught and find a way to live with the new normal of isolation from its immediate neighbors.

Still, the resulting stalemate has come at a cost to all the parties. If Qatar has survived, it can hardly be said to have thrived: billions of dollars were withdrawn from Qatari banks, its airline, airport and tourism were walloped, and economic growth slowed. The quartet, too, has incurred losses, particularly the UAE emirate of Dubai, which has suffered a significant blow to its brand as the regional hub of a system of global interaction: isolating a wealthy neighbor contradicts that ethos of interconnectedness.

So all the parties involved have been looking for a way out; Kuwait and Oman, caught in the GCC crossfire, have tried to mediate. The turning point may have been the severe crisis afflicting Iran, whose 1979 “Islamic” revolution was the proximate cause for the GCC’s founding. Recent protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and then in Iran itself, have challenged social and political orders designed to maximize the Islamic Republic’s regional hegemony. Tehran and its allies do not appear to have a plausible response, other than brute force and repression.

This crisis means that Iran’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, no longer feel—as they have since U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003—that Iran is gaining strength at every turn, accumulating a disproportionate regional advantage.

The risks in inviting a regional rapprochement with Qatar, therefore, have decreased greatly. Add to this the fact that nothing further is to be gained from extending an isolation campaign that is yielding diminishing returns, and you understand why Riyadh, in particular, has been testing the waters for an end to the GCC dispute.

For now, the UAE remains a holdout, arguing that Doha has not adequately addressed the issues that led to its isolation. But the Emiratis have tended to follow the Saudi lead on GCC matters, and will likely do the same over Qatar.

None of this will happen in a hurry—maybe not even in time for the next GCC summit next year in Bahrain. But the dispute with Qatar grew over years and even decades, and will take time to resolve. But the fact that the Gulf Arabs are headed toward a rapprochement is cause enough for cheer.

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.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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