Author: Kenan ROVSHANOGHLU
The diplomatic crisis over Qatar lasted exactly three years and seven months. On January 5, 2021, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain signed at a meeting of Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) a joint statement officially lifting the embargo and isolation against Qatar imposed by these states on June 5, 2017.
The signatories pledged to lift the economic embargo on Qatar, restore trade relations and open borders and airspace. However, it will take some time for a complete diplomatic thaw. According to the Foreign Minister of the UAE Anwar Gargash, they yet to decide on the presence of the Turkish armed forces in the Persian Gulf (Turkish military base in Qatar. - R+), as well as other political issues.
It all started on June 5, 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain issued a joint statement accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism and other illegal activities in the Middle East. As a result, the four states imposed an embargo on Qatar, closed their airspace, borders and ports for Qataris.
Soon, the accusation against Qatar turned into specific demands. As it turned out later, 13 demands from Qatar had been previously agreed with the then US President Donald Trump at the international security summit held in Riyadh on May 21, 2017.
In particular, Qatar was required to lower the level of diplomatic relations with Iran, close Iranian diplomatic missions in the country, deport the members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and end intelligence and military cooperation with Tehran. Trade with Iran could continue if it did not harm the security of the GCC and the requirements of the US embargo. Qatar was also demanded to stop construction and close the Turkish military base in the country, to suspend military cooperation with Turkey, relations with radical Islamist organizations, especially with the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Fatah al-Sham (at that time associated with the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria – Al-Nusra) and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Qatar also had to officially recognize the organizations recognized by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt as terrorist, suspend any financial aid to organizations and persons recognized by the aforementioned countries as involved in acts of terror, deport the persons wanted in these four countries, stop broadcasting the Al-Jazeera information network and other media funded by Qatar. According to the statement, Doha even had to coordinate its military, political, social and economic policies with the corresponding policies of other Gulf and Arab states.
It was clear from the very beginning that Qatar would not accept these conditions. Indeed, that’s what it did. But it was also clear that the embargo against Qatar was possible after a blessing of the then US President Donald Trump. Remarkably, all four countries that imposed embargo on Doha, and even Qatar itself, have long been among the closest allies of the US in the region. Why did the Trump administration take such a step having been aware of the risk of confrontation between its allies?
Before answering this questiont, it is necessary to review the conditions and charges against Qatar. This small peninsular state has significant influence and connections throughout the Middle East and in the Muslim world. The country has huge reserves of hydrocarbons, borders only Saudi Arabia and has almost no local food production. Thanks to its material wealth Qatar was able to create the largest information network in the Muslim East, turning it into one of the leading players in the world socio-political arena. Until recently, the most secret political negotiations, plots and other regional issues have been discussed in Doha. It is therefore natural that in order to maintain neutrality and the function of a diplomatic centre, Qatar had to maintain relations with the Afghan Taliban, Iran, Al-Qaeda and other infamous organizations and states.
But, as one would expect, after a while, Qatar's allies could not remain silent of what their partner was doing. For example, the current Egyptian government and the regional monarchies did not approve of Qatar's close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, who came to power in Egypt after the Arab Spring but were overthrown in the 2013 military coup. Qatar's cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah, both arch enemies of the regional Arab regimes, evoked a similar negative reaction. In addition, Qatar supported the Libyan Government of National Accord, which was close to the Brothers, which greatly annoyed the other Gulf governments who sympathized with the opposite side of the North African conflict.
It was these relations, or rather the secret connections of Doha, that became the last straw of patience of the once allies of Qatar, incurring an embargo on the latter in 2017. At that time, according to Arab media reports, several members of the ruling family of Qatar were kidnapped by unknown persons during a traditional hunting season in Iraq. A long search was unsuccessful. The whereabouts of the abducted princes became known only after the intervention of Iran. To free them, Qatar was forced to pay a large sum of money to both Iran, acting as an intermediary, and the jihadist groups in Syria agreeing to fulfill their demands. This long and tense process has caused a lot of dissatisfaction both in the region and overseas.
But it looks like the Qatari government did not have to choose. According to some reports, the Gulf states accused Qatar of aiding terrorists because of the money it paid them to release the kidnapped members of the Qatari royal family. But the above demands from Qatar, as a whole and individually, were important for the countries that imposed embargo on Qatar.
One of the accusations against Doha was its cooperation with Turkey and agreement to construct a Turkish military base on its territory. Most worried were the governments of the UAE and Egypt, whose relations with Turkey deteriorated every passing year.
As soon as the accusation was made public, the construction of the Turkish base was accelerated, and soon it was officially announced open. Interestingly, Turkey and Iran were the first to provide food and medical assistance to Qatar during the embargo. Iran also opened airspace for Qatar. By the way, it is rumoured that the grandmother of the current emir of Qatar is from Persia, and this relationship played an important role in relations between Tehran and Doha.
As mentioned earlier, the Gulf states could not single-handedly impose tough sanctions against Qatar, as they needed Washington's consent. After all, Qatar is also one of the closest regional allies of the US. The largest US air base in the region – Al-Udeid – with 13,000 troops and many tactical B-52 bombers is located in Qatar.
According to media reports, the decision of the Arab states to impose an embargo on Qatar was approved on May 21, 2017 at the security summit in Riyadh. Apparently, President Trump had to make a compromise after being provided the evidences of Qatar's cooperation with Iran and a $110 billion deal to supply American weapons to Saudi Arabia.
It became known later that the father of the current emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who reigned until 2013, went to Washington immediately after the decision on the embargo, spending there several weeks with his ‘old Democrat friends’. The unofficial voyage of the former king turned out to be a fruitful one with a $12 billion contract signed with Washington for the supply of fighter jets to Qatar and the Trump administration's neutrality on the Qatari incident. This helped Qatar to successfully resist any threats from other Gulf countries even after bringing the Turkish army into the country.
The affiliation of the al-Thani family with the American Democrats played an instrumental role in President Trump initially supporting the embargo against Qatar. It is not surprising that the recent election of a new Democratic president in the US has had a significant impact on the reconciliation process between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the main instigator of the recent confrontation, and other regional states. Meanwhile, many Middle Eastern states now hastily adjust their foreign policies with the arrival of the new owner of the White House – Joseph Biden.
There is no doubt that under the new Biden administration, Qatar will strengthen its position. Other Gulf countries are also aware of this. This factor clearly played an instrumental role in the hasty reconciliation with Qatar. Interestingly, one of the main initiators of the reconciliation of Doha with Riyadh was Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. He is known for his direct involvement as the chief peacemaker between Israel and the Arab states. Indeed, he had to spend a lot of energy in order to convince the Arab governments to make peace with Israel.
In fact, it seems that Qatar did not make any concessions on January 5. In his interview with the Financial Times, the emirate's foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdurrahman al-Thani, said Doha had withdrawn the lawsuit in international courts only against the states that have imposed an embargo on Qatar. The country also agreed to cooperate with other Gulf states in anti-terrorist operations abroad. But the new agreement will not affect Qatar's relations with Iran and Turkey.
Another "concession" in favour of the countries that imposed an embargo on Qatar was the end of criticism of the Saudi royal family in international media. After all, it is well known that Qatar has influence over the major American media outlets. And Doha violently used these opportunities against the Saudi government, especially in the incident involving the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
In early January, the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, arrived in Saudi Arabia. At the airport, he was warmly greeted by the crown prince of the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, the main culprit in the deterioration of relations between the two states and the main object of criticism of Qatar over the past three years. Despite the pandemic, both leaders hugged each other, albeit remained in masks. Perhaps they wanted to demonstrate that the peace was not artificial, although Qatar practically did not fulfil any of the above demands.
In other words, the ongoing can be called anything but mutual concessions. The final solution of the problem can take much longer. Currently, in Libya, as in Yemen, Qatar and the aforementioned Gulf states are actually on opposite fronts.
As for the impact of the truce on relations between Qatar and Turkey, it is difficult to judge this now, since the process of reconciliation has not yet been completed. However, it is obvious that even with the current peace with its neighbours, Qatar does not trust them, and it needs to have an ally like Turkey.
On the other hand, it is possible that Turkey itself will need to soften its relations, if not with the UAE, then with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. After all, Ankara needs peace with Cairo at least because after the events in Libya and in the Eastern Mediterranean, there are serious tensions in relations between the two capitals.
Turkey still needs Saudi Arabia as an influential member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and in regional issues. Therefore, Ankara warmly welcomed the softening of relations between the Saudi Arabia and Qatar, especially under the new Biden administration.