The summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations held on Tuesday in Saudi Arabia has already been described as a “historic summit,” one that is supposed to renew the alliance between the six member countries of the GCC.
The participants in the meeting were slated to draft the principles of reconciling with Qatar, after having imposed a boycott and air and sea blockade on the small Gulf state since June 2017. As the first and breakthrough step, Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen its land borders and its airspace to traffic to and from Qatar.
It is still not yet clear what Saudi Arabia and Qatar have given up to reach this preliminary agreement, except for Saudi Arabia dropping its demand to shut down the Qatari Al Jazeera network, and Qatar’s willingness to withdraw its claims for $5 billion in compensation for damage the boycotting countries have caused it. On the face of it, it is an agreement only between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but it is assumed that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, who are partners in the boycott, will follow Saudi Arabia and join in the agreement.
The declaration of the conflict with Qatar and sanctions imposed in June 2017 was one of the first actions of Mohammed bin Salman, who became the Saudi crown prince that same month. It was an especially “fruitful” period for Prince Mohammed. Five months after that he surprised the kingdom and the world when he arrested dozens of rich Saudis, including princes from the royal family, and forced them to put billions of dollars into the government’s coffers as part of a campaign he started “against corruption.” He was certain that he would manage to force the hand of Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, who had ascended to power three years earlier in an unusual transfer of power in which his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani stepped down of his own accord and passed on the title of Emir to his fourth son.
Crown Prince Mohammed may have tried to present the boycott of Qatar as a joint act of all the Gulf states, but he managed to enlist only Bahrain and the UAE on his side – Egypt is not a Gulf state – while Kuwait and Oman remained neutral. Saudi Arabia presented Qatar with a list of 13 demands which it needed to implement as a fundamental condition for lifting the sanctions. These included demands that Qatar sever, or at the very least limit its relations with Iran, end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, hand over to Saudi Arabia activists in these organizations, remove the Turkish military base it built on its territory, close down Al Jazeera whose sensational exposes revealed the depths of the corruption in Arab countries, pay compensation for the damage caused by Qatar’s policies, agree to strict oversight by the Gulf states of Qatar’s implementation of all these conditions – and to toe the line with the foreign policy of the Gulf states.
In practice, Saudi Arabia tried to turn Qatar into a vassal state, with a status similar to that of Bahrain. But the sanctions – which included a ban on trading with Qatar, the closure of its land and air borders, expulsion of Qatari citizens and applying international pressure on Qatar – did not deter its ruler. Or more precisely, they achieved the exact opposite effect of what Saudi Arabia wanted.
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Immediately after the sanctions were imposed, Iran and Turkey stepped in to aid Qatar. Turkey began an enormous airlift that supplied Qatar with basic goods, and Iran became an aerial and sea transit point – while Washington, which maintains its largest military base in the Middle East in Qatar, actually showered Qatar with compliments and presented it as a country that contributes greatly to the war against terror.
Economically, Qatar managed relatively quickly to handle the enormous difficulties caused by the sanctions and began building local factories to manufacture consumer goods, provided some $40 billion to its banks to cover the deposits that had been withdrawn by investors from the Gulf, and increased its national investment fund to over $320 billion. Qatar replaced its temporary distress and fears of economic suffocation in 2018 with economic growth of 2.7 percent.
Qatar, which is the world leader in per capita GDP, committed to investing $15 billion in Turkey, to cushion the Turkish economy that is going through a severe crisis, and as a payback for the aid it received from Turkey when the sanctions were imposed – and Qatar has expanded its investments all over the world as if the blockade never existed. Qatar also received Israeli “approval” to aid Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Qatar is a partner of Turkey in the campaign it is conducting in Libya between the internationally recognized government and the separatist General Khalifa Haftar, and is continuing its preparations for the 2022 World Cup it is hosting.
By comparison, over the three years of Mohammed’s reign as crown prince, Saudi Arabia has become an unwelcome player in both the United States and Europe. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi cast the young Saudi leader as a wild and dangerous figure. The war in Yemen that he conducted developed into a bloody military and diplomatic mire that proved that even with the finest in American weaponry the Saudi army is incapable of winning a war against local tribes. Now, with Joe Biden entering the White House, it is actually Saudi Arabia that is under the threat of sanctions.
Not much is left of the Arab coalition against Iran. The UAE withdrew from Yemen and even signed agreements for economic and defense cooperation with the Iranian regime. Oman continues to preserve its neutrality as part of its traditional policy in which the sultanate guards its status as a mediator that is uninvolved in the conflicts. Iraq continues to serve as the source for Iranian goods and has recently earned another period of exemption from the applicable American sanctions. Qatar was not a part of this coalition and is Iran’s partner in the ownership and management of the largest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, and now the “big threat” has arrived – Biden’s policy of a return to the nuclear deal with Iran.
Saudi Arabia was forced to adapt itself in preparation for the “Biden show” and rehabilitate its standing in Washington, buy leverage against a pro-Iranian American policy and deal with economic troubles back at home. Reconciliation with Qatar, which the Trump administration had been striving for throughout the entire period of the sanctions against the Gulf state, may be a heavy price that Mohammed will be forced to pay. But he withstood all the American pressures to speed up the process, thus preserving Saudi Arabia’s status as the one that dictates the strategic moves in the Middle East, a crucial status in preparation for the changing of administrations in Washington.
One of the questions facing the Saudi crown prince and his father the king was whether to “grant” Trump the reconciliation, or to wait for Biden. Here Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner played a decisive role, when he convinced Mohammed, his close friend, to speed up the reconciliation in order to present Biden with a united bloc of the Gulf states to make it harder for the next administration to play off the countries against each other. Kushner also reminded the crown prince of his debt to Trump, who has protected him the entire time since Khashoggi’s murder. It is not clear which of Kushner’s arguments had the decisive impact, but Trump can chalk up another achievement in the field of solving conflicts in the Middle East.
Those who did not celebrate the breakthrough are Egypt and the UAE. Egypt and Qatar have a long account to settle, mostly over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is defined as a terrorist organization in Egypt – and the frequent attacks on Al Jazeera against Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. At the same time, tens of thousands of Egyptians who work in Qatar, in spite of the Egyptian boycott and Qatar’s involvement in the Gaza Strip and Libya, have made the relations between the two countries especially complicated.
The UAE is not pleased with Qatar’s ties with Turkey, which it views as a more serious threat than Iran. The Qatar affair, in which a small and wealthy nation has managed to undermine what was considered to be a stable and united Arab coalition, once again makes it clear that the “theory of the blocs” in the Middle East does not necessarily reflect reality.