Arab States Ending Qatar Blockade Is Really About Biden

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey intend to present the U.S. leader with a new diplomatic map of the Middle East and create a protective wall against any pro-Iranian slide

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani to Saudi Arabia, January 5, 2021.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani to Saudi Arabia, January 5, 2021.Credit: ,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Egypt’s announcement of renewed, low-level ties with Qatar apparently spells the end to the three-year conflict between those two countries, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The agreement signed earlier this month in the Saudi city of Al-Ula – complete with embraces between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani – earned congratulations and good wishes both from the Arab world and the West.

Cairo's announcement of the step toward rapprochement was also accompanied by an explanation by “close sources” that at a meeting between representatives of Qatar and Egypt, Qatar pledged to stop interfering in Egypt’s domestic affairs and to instruct the Doha-based Al Jazeera network to cease its criticism of the Egyptian regime. Qatar denied that such a meeting had taken place, but did not deny that the pledges had been made.

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Neither side has so far revealed the details of the arrangements and obligations the government in Doha has taken upon itself, and it is not known what Egypt means when it reports that Qatar has agreed not to interfere in its internal affairs.

The deep rift developed between the two countries in 2013, when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed and imprisoned his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt was roundly condemned for this by both Qatar's leaders and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who to this day considers Sisi’s government to be a military dictatorship that grabbed power in the dead of night.

Cairo has an even bigger bone to pick with Al Jazeera, which goes as far back as the term of President Hosni Mubarak, whom the international media organization treated very harshly, including by means of earth-shattering exposes probing the depth of the regime’s corruption.

Journalists stand near a screen showing the plane carrying Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani as it lands in Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. Credit: AHMED YOSRI/ REUTERS

Egypt opposed the reconciliation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as did the UAE, but Saudi ratcheted up the pressure. Saudi Arabia has its own considerations and interests, especially vis-a-vis the new American administration under President Joe Biden, and it hopes to exploit the agreement with Qatar to leverage rehabilitation of its ties with Washington.

Egypt can’t do anything to damage the Saudi move, but it is showing its dissatisfaction by making do meanwhile with only appointing an acting ambassador to Doha, rather than a permanent envoy, and by warning that “Qatar’s conduct will be tested by its actions and not its declarations” – a known turn of phrase that describes the dubious and cool nature of the ties between the two countries.

Egypt is waiting to see, for instance, whether Qatar will renounce its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, expel its leaders, among them Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and join the fight against them. No less important to Cairo will be Qatar’s conduct in Libya, where Qatar has joined forces with Turkey in providing military support for the recognized government in Tripoli – as opposed to Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and France, which support the separatist General Khalifa Haftar.

Meanwhile, more than 350,000 Egyptian citizens are working in Qatar, sending tens of millions of dollars to their families back home. Egypt now expects Qatar to open its gates to tens of thousands more workers, thus somewhat easing the current high unemployment in Egypt.

The reconciliation with Qatar comes at a time when the solidarity that the Gulf states and Egypt evinced in their attitude toward Doha had begun to unravel. Disagreement has emerged between Egypt and the UAE over the crisis in Libya, with Cairo beginning to show greater flexibility toward the Libyan regime, while Abu Dhabi is holding fast to its harsh military policy against the latter – a position that Egypt believes could impede its efforts to protect its western border with Libya.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 14, 2020Credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/ REU

Egypt is also disappointed that the UAE has not brought its full weight to bear on Ethiopia to delay the filling of the Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile River, which Egypt considers to be an existential threat. Cairo is also disturbed by the UAE’s normalization agreement with Israel, to which Egypt was not a party.

The UAE, for its part, was taken by surprise by Egypt’s contacts with Turkey over demarcation of commercial waters in the Mediterranean, and by the agreement Turkey signed with Libya that could hurt the flow of Egyptian gas exports to Europe.

Leaders in Ankara and Cairo recently issued new statements that signal an intention to open a channel of communication and perhaps renew ties. In December, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said contacts were ongoing at the intelligence level between the two countries “but this dialogue also continues at the level of foreign ministries.” Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey is working on a road map to improve relations between the two countries.

The UAE also seeks to renew ties with Ankara, but it aspires to be the party that dictates the terms and is concerned that Egypt’s “private” initiative vis-a-vis Turkey could put a dent in that plan.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are waiting with bated breath, for President Joe Biden’s policy declarations. The threat of sanctions hovers above all three: Saudi Arabia because of the war in Yemen and the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkey because of the purchase of Russian anti-aircraft missiles and gas drilling in the Mediterranean; and Egypt because of its severe violations of human rights. The efforts at rapprochement between them and Turkey should be seen in this context, and it appears that these countries intend to present the U.S. leader with a new diplomatic map according to which Turkey will be part of the “new alliance,” the normalization accords with Israel will serve as a safety mechanism against sanctions, and the reconciliation between the Gulf states and Qatar will create a protective wall against any pro-Iranian slide by Biden.

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