Gulf States Sign Detente Deal With Qatar as Saudi Arabia Hails United Front Against Iran

Saudi crown prince slams Iran's 'subversive and destructive' plans in the region ■ Saudi, Qatari leaders hugged ahead of summit following agreement to end the three year boycott of Qatar

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Leaders from GCC states before the opening session of the 41st GCC summit in the northwestern Saudi city of al-Ula,January 5, 2021
Leaders from GCC states before the opening session of the 41st GCC summit in the northwestern Saudi city of al-Ula, January 5, 2021Credit: AFP/Saudi Royal Palace/Bandar al-Jaloud

Embracing Qatar's ruler, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince pushed a deal to end a bitter row with Doha at a Gulf Arab summit on Tuesday to try to shore up an anti-Iran front, although a final declaration contained only a general pledge of solidarity.

The kingdom's foreign minister said Riyadh and its Arab allies agreed to restore ties with Doha to end a boycott imposed in mid-2017 and strengthen a Gulf Arab alliance against Tehran.

While the communique contained no detailed confirmation of a deal, the apparent breakthrough signalled hope for mending a rift between major U.S. allies two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office and at a time of regional tensions with Iran.

"There is political will and good faith" to guarantee implementation of the deal, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud told a news conference, saying the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt had all agreed to restore ties with Doha.

His Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, tweeted that leaders "closed the page on disagreement ... and seek to open a new page" of solidarity.

Saudi, Qatari leaders hug ahead of summit focused on Gulf detenteCredit: Reuters video screenshot

But UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash voiced more cautious optimism in remarks to Al Arabiya TV, saying "we need to be realistic about the need to restore confidence and cohesion" and that trust building was required.

The apparent deal followed mediation efforts by the United States and Kuwait, and a U.S. official said on Monday Qatar would suspend legal cases related to the boycott under the emerging deal.

While Riyadh made clear it intended to lift the embargo, the other three states did not immediately comment on the issue. But the U.S. official said "it's our expectation" they would also join and that Doha will suspend lawsuits related to the boycott.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, hugged at the airport tarmac before heading to the summit venue in a mirrored building reflecting the desert landscape.

Saudi de facto ruler Prince Mohammed, who chaired the short event instead of his father King Salman, said the al-Ula agreement "confirms Gulf, Arab and Islamic unity and stability".

He also called for serious action by the global community to address a threat he said was posed by Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and its "subversive and destructive plans".

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar over allegations Doha supports terrorism, a charge it denies.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a Twitter post congratuled Qatar for "the success of its brave resistance to pressure & extortion".

Egypt signals change of tact

Egyptian FM Sameh Shoukry attends a news conference after the meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud at Tahrir Palace in Cairo, Egypt, July 27, 2020Credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/ REUTERS

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry flew to the Gulf summit in al-Ula in Saudi Arabia where the Saudi foreign minister said the four nations had agreed to end the boycott, while Qatar's finance minister made a rare trip to Cairo.

Egypt's foreign ministry said Shoukry had signed the "al-Ula declaration on Arab reconciliation", but gave no confirmation that it would restore ties.

The Egyptian presidency and foreign ministry have recently softened their tone on the regional dispute, expressing support for reconciliation.

When the boycott was announced, Egypt and its allies called on Qatar to cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, among other demands.

The Islamist group was outlawed in Egypt after then-army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi led the ouster of the Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi from the presidency in 2013, before being elected president himself the following year. He also jailed much of the group's senior leadership.

Two Egyptian intelligence sources told Reuters earlier this week that Egypt was still making Doha cutting support for Muslim Brotherhood leaders abroad a condition for the restoration of ties with Qatar.

Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, attending the opening session of the 41st GCC summit in the northwestern Saudi city of al-Ula, January 5, 2020Credit: AFP/Saudi Royal Palace/Bandar al-Jaloud

Working the phones

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has been pushing for a resolution to the dispute that Washington sees as hindering efforts to contain Iran.

Kushner, tasked by Trump, his father-in-law, to work on ending the rift, was making phone calls on the emerging deal until the early hours of Monday, a U.S. official had said.

Diplomats and analysts said Riyadh was also pushing reluctant allies to show Biden that the kingdom is open to dialogue. Biden has said he will take a harder line with the kingdom over issues including its human rights record and the Yemen war.

"This (deal) is seemingly influenced by a desire to pre-empt pressure from an incoming Biden administration, more than a genuine commitment to conflict resolution," said Emadeddin Badi, nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council.

"The détente within the GCC is very unlikely to significantly affect geopolitical dynamics beyond the Gulf."

All the states are U.S. allies. Qatar hosts the region's largest U.S. military base, Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE host U.S. troops.

Qatar says the boycott aims to curb its sovereignty.

The other countries had set Doha 13 demands, including closing Al-Jazeera TV, shuttering a Turkish base, cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood and downgrading ties with Iran. 

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