On Tuesday 5 January 2021, Egypt, alongside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and Bahrain, signed a reconciliation agreement with Qatar, aimed at resolving a three-and-a-half year boycott imposed on Doha. The signing occurred during the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, which was held in the city of Al-Ula, in Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the agreement comes after months of diplomatic negotiations aimed at promoting “solidarity and stability” in the region. With the signing of the agreement, Egypt and its three Arab allies plan to restore full diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar and lift the blockade imposed on the country.
Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry represented his country at the GCC Summit, signing the reconciliation deal with Qatar. In a statement issued following the day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that Egypt signed the agreement as part of its “keenness to [achieve] solidarity among the Arab quartet states.” The statement also affirmed that the reconciliation agreement will unify the Arab nations, and enhance the joint Arab work in the face of the critical challenges the region faces. Moreover, Cairo stressed that it is imperative to build on this step to strengthen Arab actions and support relations between Arab nations, based on “goodwill and non-interference” in the domestic affairs of other countries.
The reconciliation agreement comes following years of isolation for Qatar, which was brought on by tumultuous relationships with its neighbours. The diplomatic rift culminated in June 2017 when Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Bahrain formally severed diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar, accusing Doha of sponsoring terrorism and being “too close to Iran,” according to Al Jazeera. Qatar has consistently denied these accusations, contending that the Saudi-led blockade aimed to infringe on its sovereignty. The four countries presented Qatar with 13 demands as conditions for ending the embargo, which included terminating support to the Muslim Brotherhood, shutting down Al Jazeera and other Qatar-funded news outlets, and curbing diplomatic ties with Iran. According to BBC, Qatar refused to comply, declaring that it would not agree to “surrender its sovereignty” and that the blockade violated international law. The three-and-a-half year rift not only impacted Qataris, but upended the lives of thousands of people across the MENA region. As reported by Human Rights Watch, the blockade separated families, interrupted medical care, infringed on the right of free expression, disrupted education, and stranded migrant workers without food or water.
The diplomatic breakthrough between the GCC states comes following a final push by the outgoing Trump administration and Kuwait to mediate the dispute. According to AP, it also came as Saudi Arabia seeks to unify Arab ranks ahead of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, which is expected to ramp up pressure on Saudi Arabia regarding human rights and revisit the Iran deal. Thus, the driving force to end the three-and-a-half year rift may be political and – especially for Saudi Arabia – influenced by the desire to pre-empt pressure from the incoming Biden administration. As such, while the reconciliation deal is well-intentioned to an extent, it remains a superficial conflict resolution mechanism that lacks commitment and genuineness. If Egypt and its Arab allies are to carry out a truly effective and holistic peace process with Qatar, they must act on their own words, and take further steps to enhance their relationships with each other and the rest of the world.
The signing of the reconciliation deal and the subsequent end of the blockade imposed on Qatar is an essential step toward GCC rapprochement and cooperation required to face the significant political and economic challenges ahead. While there are concerns on the intentions behind the deal, any reduction of tension and reopening of borders should be considered a milestone in a region torn by conflict and insecurity. That said, the path toward full reconciliation is far from guaranteed as tensions and sharp ideological divides between the countries continue to strain their relationships. Moreover, as the blockade continues to lift and as flights to Qatar resume beginning this week, it is unclear how much Qatar will revert back to previous diplomatic and trade ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Bahrain. Since 2017, Qatar has had to establish new networks, and has significantly strengthened relations with countries such as Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. As such, the desired “solidarity and stability” in the region remains doubtful, and lasting peace is yet to come.
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