Time Is Ripe For a Saudi-Qatar Reconciliation

It looks like the Trump administration’s effort to get some important last-minute gains in the Middle East is paying off. On a trip to the region this week, the president’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, Jared Kushner, is reported to have engineered a preliminary agreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to end their rift. 

The key to the potential rapprochement between Riyadh and Doha is the reopening of a crucial flight route through Saudi airspace for Qatari civilian aircraft. This was cut off in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, along with  the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, began an economic embargo on Qatar.

The loss of overflight rights has been by far the biggest practical blow to Qatar from the embargo, and their restoration would represent a major breakthrough. A bonus for the Saudis would be depriving their arch-enemy Iran of the $100 million a year Qatar pays for alternative routes over Iranian airspace. Given the impact of U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic, those payments are a vital sources of foreign exchange that the regime in Tehran can ill afford to lose.

It is unclear what Qatar will agree to do in return. The original list of 13 demands from the boycotting nations included the shuttering of the Doha-based Al Jazeera network, the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar and a scaling down of ties with Iran. At the very least, Riyadh will expect the Qataris to forswear activities that might conflict with Saudi interests and anything that smacks of meddling in Saudi domestic politics.

For the Trump administration, getting Qatar back into the Gulf Arab fold is part of a broader push to strengthen the coalition against Iran, and to make it harder for President-elect Joe Biden to reverse Trump’s confrontational policies and return to the diplomatic outreach of the Barack Obama years.

A raft of last-minute additional sanctions on Tehran are part of that effort, as undoubtedly is the assassination — presumably by Israel — of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the scientist who led Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. The intention is to leave Biden with the most tense and confrontational relationship with Iran possible, short of open conflict.

It will be up to the Biden team whether to view these late salvos as useful leverage or burdensome obstacles, or some combination of the two.

It’s significant that Kushner and his team did not visit Abu Dhabi, undoubtedly because the UAE has made it clear it is not interested in a rapprochement with Qatar. The UAE views the standoff as primarily ideological, and an effort to compel Qatar to stop supporting Sunni Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, throughout the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia shares that goal, but without the Emirati passion. Riyadh has viewed Doha less as an ideological menace and more as an intolerable upstart, a tiny neighboring country meddling in matters above its station — including, the Saudis maintain, in their internal affairs.

Riyadh seems to have decided that it has made its point, and will now use a rapprochement under the pro-American (and at least implicitly, anti-Iranian) banner to simultaneously please both the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden team.

The two other obvious measures that might serve the same purposes, ending the war in Yemen and initiating diplomatic relations with Israel, are both more risky and complex than ending the feud with Qatar.

Riyadh may be hoping to repair its strained relationship with Democrats in Washington, who have been outraged by Saudi Arabia’s close relations with Trump, the war in Yemen, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamaal Khashoggi and worsening human rights abuses in the kingdom under the de-facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Making up with Qatar might not mollify the progressive left, but it would help set a positive new tone with the Biden foreign policy team.

The UAE, though, will likely continue to resist any compromise with Qatar, and dismiss any promises by Doha as insincere. The Emiratis will argue that Qatar has joined Turkey in building a regional bloc at odds with both the pro-Iranian and pro-American camps. Kushner’s avoidance of the UAE this time around suggests he’s not interested in hearing that again just now.

Washington has failed to end the standoff among its Gulf Arab allies since the summer of 2017 because it never made relations with any of the key players dependent on a specific outcome. When U.S. officials talked about the need to end the embargo, it was regarded as a suggestion rather than a real demand.

That position was essentially driven by the Pentagon, which has key assets and military bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, and did not want to complicate its operational military arrangements by intervening in what many considered to be merely “a family dispute.”

For the UAE, it is much more than that, a struggle to define the parameters of mainstream Arab political culture for the coming decades.

Qatar has long been ready for a resolution. It developed various workarounds for the embargo, but recognizes that it ultimately needs to get along with its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis, too, may finally be ready to reconcile, given the intensification of the conflict with Iran and a concomitant desire to circle Arab wagons. 

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.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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