Despite Detente, Ties Between Qatar and the Gulf Are Still a Ticking Bomb

'The wound is very deep': Gulf leaders put on a good show of newfound brotherly love at the GCC summit, but their formal end of conflict can’t paper over deeper social and political fractures

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A Qatari flag flies in front of a banner showing Saudi King Salman with the caption, "We pledge: To listen and to obey" in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, ahead of the 40th GCC summit. Dec. 9, 2019
A Qatari flag flies in front of a banner showing Saudi King Salman with the caption, "We pledge: To listen and to obey" in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, ahead of the 40th GCC summit. December 9, 2019.Credit: Amr Nabil,AP

A "solidarity and stability" agreement: that is how the six Gulf Cooperation Council states paved the way to end a three and a half year long regional crisis that pitted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt against the gas-rich emirate of Qatar.

Hours before the start of the 41st GCC Summit, where the Al-Ula agreement was signed, Saudi Arabia reopened its airspace and borders with Qatar. It was both a tangible and symbolic move by Mohammed bin Salman to end the boycott and isolation of Doha.

The Saudi kingdom’s de facto ruler gave Qatar’s Emir a hearty hug minutes after he landed in Al Ula and said the detente "confirms Gulf, Arab and Islamic unity and stability." Later in the day, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt agreed to restore full ties with Doha and reopened their skies to Qatar, thus formally ending the GCC crisis.

Riyadh has been keen to resolve the GCC crisis before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, not least in an opportunistic attempt to get ahead of his pledge to "reassess" ties with the kingdom over human rights concerns

But healing the wounds at the individual and collective level might take quite a bit longer. And deep, perhaps intractable, political divisions remain.

"Families have been the big losers in this crisis," says Amna Yousef Al Obaidan, a Qatari citizen whose uncles and cousins are Bahraini nationals, with regret. Comments about the GCC crisis or each other's countries’ policies have caused heated debate in her family since 2017.

In her professional life, Al Obaidan works for Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee. Last week, she received a call from a Bahraini woman who lives in Qatar: "I did not get to see my father when he passed away two years ago. And now my younger brother passed away too, but if I go to attend the funeral, Bahrain will not allow me to return to Qatar where my daughter and I live. Even if this crisis ends, families are lost already," the woman told her, crying.

"We were stronger together"

View of the Qatari side of the Abu Samrah border crossing with Saudi Arabia, closed for two and a half years and now reopened. January 5, 2021.Credit: KARIM JAAFAR - AFP

In the early days of the rift, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain ordered Qatari nationals to leave their territory within 14 days, while ordering their own citizens residing in Qatar to leave the emirate. The decision separated thousands of mixed families, isolated children from their fathers or mothers and led to widespread distress and even divorce.

Inter-GCC marriages are, of course, common practice in the Arab Gulf region where tribal and family ties transcend modern national borders, and where many people live and work in neighboring states. Many communities enjoyed a nomadic-lifestyle for centuries and allegiance to a local ruler prevailed over the western concept of territorial boundaries. And marriages are often arranged with distant family members who, like in the case of Amna Yousef Al Obaidan, are split over several countries. 

Indeed, the Doha International Family Institute estimated that 11 percent of Qataris married a spouse from elsewhere within the GCC in 2015, a figure that has been pretty constant over the past three decades. 

"Gulf leaders have been building up the talk for us to feel like one, ever since the GCC was established in 1981. And all of a sudden they bombed everything, socially, economically, politically," says Mariam Al Nasr, a 31 year old Qatari.

The intra-Gulf conflict will, she thinks, be an inflection point for how borders have become rigidified, even for relationships: "I am sure a lot of Qataris would now prefer to marry a Qatari partner and not to look outside of the country for a husband or a wife."  

Al Nasr hopes that more cross-community trust would return as time goes by. "We were stronger together. We loved to say we are khaleejis because there were no boundaries between us."

"The wound is very deep,” acknowledged Dr. Ebtesam Al Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Center, the UAE's leading foreign policy and security think tank. She emphasises a reconciliation also leaves many serious unanswered questions at the political level.

"We just delegate everything to Saudi, if they want to reconcile, we will go for it," Al Ketbi told me a day before the 41st GCC summit. Yet, she notes the UAE requests "guarantees" from Qatar, notably tone down Al Jazeera’s coverage, which, she says, attempts to "ruin the UAE’s reputation," end support to the Muslim Brotherhood and regional non-state actors.

"We want to be sure we are not going to go back to square one," Al Ketbi said.

The spectre of the Arab Spring

File photo: A Qatari employee of Al-Jazeera Arabic language TV news channel walks past the logo of Al-Jazeera in Doha, November 2006.Credit: Kamran Jebreili,AP

In Saudi Arabia, the Qatar boycott was supported by large sections of the population which already regarded Doah with suspicion, in particular since the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, vocally supported by Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, shook several entrenched regimes across the Middle East in 2011 and empowered the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Allegiance to a narrative constructed to legitimize the blockade on Qatar was facilitated by a form of nationalism promoted by Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, that is based on the Islamic principle of obeying and listening to the ruler.

The narrative on "Qatar was constructed in a fashion [to demonstrate] that it was an imminent danger to Saudi Arabia and an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was even viewed as an extension of Iran," says Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi researcher specializing in the kingdom's foreign policy towards Israel.

"The change of tone between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was really shocking," said Eyad Alrefai, a Saudi doctoral candidate in politics and international relations at Lancaster University.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the heavyweight boxing match between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua in Diriya, near the Saudi capitalCredit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD - AFP

And there has been precious little space for Saudis to dissent from the official policy to excommunicate Qatar and Qataris. Publicly criticizing any of the policies led by MBS has become increasingly dangerous. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated and dismembered in Istanbul in 2018 by a team of 15 Saudi operatives that the CIA described as acting on the Crown Prince’s orders. 

Human rights activists accuse Mohammed bin Salman of gradually turning the kingdom into a police state since he outmanoeuvred the old guard to be appointed Crown Prince in 2017. 

"To be honest, you feel very insecure to say anything, even within your own community," said Alrefai. He points out that it’s not only questioning the validity of  the Qatar issue but other of MBS’ foreign policies, including the war in Yemen, which are now "hot" topics where dissent is unwise.

And it’s not only about foreign policy: The overriding MBS-era "with us, or against us" mentality leaves no room for differentiation or nuance about any of his policies. Support women’s right to drive? Support the Qatar blockade. The MBS platform is indivisible.

Opening closed skies

An Emirates Airline Airbus A380 jet taxis upon arriving at JFK International Airport in New YorkCredit: Bloomberg

For Alghashian, the inter-Gulf rivalries and suspicions that reached its height during the three-years-long crisis are now "part of the fabric" of Gulf politics and society. Certainly the broken families and marriages won’t be easily forgotten.

But he doesn’t think the break has passed the point of no return. He argues the COVID-19 pandemic "offered itself as an opportunity" to unify Gulf rulers and populations over the common challenge of building economies tailored to a post-oil era.

And one of the key post-oil post-pandemic industries, and one which actually requires and embeds cross-border cooperation, is regional tourism.

Before 2017, Saudi tourists accounted for around a third of Qatar’s 2.9 million visitors while Qataris attended the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and regularly flew to Dubai for the weekend.

UAE's flag carrier Emirates carried over 3.7 million passengers from Dubai to Doha  in the five years preceding the crisis, making it the airline’s most served destination with nine daily flights. 

Banned from landing in or overflying Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar Airways lost 18 destinations from its route network, and longer flights bypassing their airspace burnt more fuel, leading to punitive operating costs. Before the boycott, Qatar Airways was making large profits: $445m in 2016, and $542m until the boycott was imposed in March 2017. Then there was an implosion in revenues: the airline reported a $639 million loss for the 2018/2019 financial year.

Unable in practice to travel to Mecca and Medina to perform religious rites – the intensity of the crisis meant Qataris feared venturing into the kingdom – disillusioned Qataris started questioning Saudi Arabia’s sole legitimacy over Islam's two holiest sites. 

"It is not written in the Quran or anywhere that Mecca is under Saudi rule or, for that matter, of anyone else. It is for everyone," says Al Nasr, who had planned to perform the Hajj in 2017 but had to postpone. "Once everything is back to normal, I really want to go to Hajj," she said.

"We are not like before"

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) welcoming Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani upon his arrival al-Ula, Saudi Arabia for the 41st GCC summit. January 5, 2021.Credit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD - AFP

Yet, history indicates inter-Gulf rivalry has often prevailed over the common interest.

Political tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain did not suddenly accelerate from zero in 2017. As James Onley, the Canadian Director of Historical Research at the Qatar National Library notes, they were the latest round of "centuries of animosity, a long term pattern of warfare and conflicts between these ruling families."

And Qatar isn’t the only focus. Onley describes Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia as "historical enemies" and points out that the yet-to-be-defined maritime boundaries between the UAE and Saudi Arabia remains an unresolved issue. In 2010, a UAE Navy ship captured a Saudi coast guard vessel in response to Riyadh’s attempts to undermine a UAE-Qatar maritime causeway project. "You could characterize the relations between all the GCC states as a love-hate relationship."

Though outwardly cordial, alliances between Gulf rulers are often "superficial" and vary widely according to personal interests and the circumstances of the time.

Commentators believe the growing role of the UAE as the region’s trendsetter, and more ambitiously, its leading power – it took the lead in normalization with Israel and pushed ahead a wave of well-hyped liberalization policies – is one of the elements that motivated Saudi Arabia to accelerate the reconciliation with Qatar, in order to own the process.

"Saudi Arabia wants to reassert itself as a Gulf leader," Alghashian said.

The conflict between Qatar and other GCC states privileges a self-serving nationalistic rhetoric at the expense of vibrant familial ties rooted in a social fabric which span borders.

Qatar’s Al Obaidan sighed. "We are not like before; there is something that hurts in our hearts." But that pain won’t be much of a factor for Gulf leaders for whom "Gulf unity" is a useful cause to celebrate until the next time cold calculation and divergent policies renders it expendable.

Sebastian Castelier is a journalist who covers Gulf Arab states and labor migration. His work has appeared in several Middle Eastern and international media outlets. Twitter: @SCastelier

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