In a significant turn in Persian Gulf affairs, on January 5th, the Saudi-led bloc, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, ended their years-long blockade of Qatar. According to CNBC, a Gulf Co-Operation Council meeting held in Saudi Arabia saw the arrival of Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to the Kingdom for the first time since the blockade began in 2017. The Council also signed of an agreement to end the blockade and resume diplomatic and economic relations. According to the BBC, Saudi Arabia agreed to open its land and sea border the previous night, and since then, the other blockading countries have followed suit. In response, Qatar will likely drop the grievances it has filed with international organizations against the blockading nations.
According to the Saudi press agency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said that the agreement emphasized “solidarity and stability in the Gulf, Arab and Islamic countries, and the strengthening of bonds an friendships and brotherhood between our countries and peoples.” Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said the United Arab Emirates was “behind this deal, and positive about the prospects of reestablishing relations with Qatar” but that they “have issues with rebuilding trust” as Qatari continues to be involved with Iran and Turkey.
Al-Jazeera reports that the seemingly swift resolution stems from Qatar’s measured response to the blockade over the past few years. Qatar continued to participate in gas agreements with the U.A.E., largely pursuing its grievances through international courts and multi-lateral resolution mechanisms. On the economic side, Qatar also proved its resiliency in the face of diplomatic conflict throughout the blockade’s duration. The small, peninsular nation replaced a traditional reliance on many imports with increased domestic production or alternative imports. This rapid realignment of the economy, supported by the world’s highest per capita income and abundant oil resources, allowed Qatar to wait out the blockading countries.
The end of the Quartet’s blockade on Qatar begins the resolution of one of the Middle East’s most contentious diplomatic conflicts of the past decade. However, the underlying regional divisions that first led to the blockade’s implementation remain.
Kuwait’s growing role as a successful mediator between Qatar and Saudi Arabia proves promising as a framework for talks going forward. Along with pressure from the Trump administration to end its tenure on a high diplomatic note, Kuwait mediated multiple rounds of talks before finalizing the current deal, which has returned the parties to the pre-blockade status quo.
Kuwait should continue to facilitate discussions to ensure the conflict ends with a true peace and not a cold one. As the Washington Post noted, a similar diplomatic spat between Gulf countries and Qatar occurred in 2014, ending with the Riyadh agreement. However, that agreement broke down when both sides accused the other of violating its condition. Kuwaiti facilitation efforts could avoid a similar breakdown going forward.
The end of this intra-Gulf conflict also brings the greater intra-Gulf conflict back into focus. Tensions between Iran and the Gulf countries, as well as with the United States and Israel, are now taking center stage. Renewed relations between Qatar and the Gulf Co-Operation Council could reposition the Emirate to facilitate further talks between Iran and its various adversaries.
As the Biden administration begins its tenure with an eye on restarting multi-lateral diplomacy in the Middle East, the reconciliation between Qatar and its erstwhile Gulf adversaries provides an opportunity to open new talks on Iran’s nuclear program that should not be overlooked.
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