False hopes have surfaced once again since the end of the Holy month of Ramadan, and coinciding with the 39th anniversary of the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), that an opening in the Qatar crisis could be possible on its third anniversary.
On 5 June 2017, GCC members Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt, cut relations with Qatar, accusing the tiny Gulf emirate of supporting terrorist and militant groups, interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbours, and opening its media to saboteurs and opponents of the four countries.
Qatar has denied the accusations and said it has not reneged on previous agreements with its neighbours on such issues and insisting that it will not allow any infringement on its foreign policy as a sovereign state. Such stubbornness has led Doha to strengthen its relations with Iran and Turkey, both adversaries of the Quartet of the four boycotting states.
But some calculated rumours recently made some think that an escalation in the crisis was underway before negotiations with each party opened in order to enhance their bargaining chips.
A rumour of a military coup in Qatar was recently denied by Doha, which also denied reports that it was mulling its withdrawal from the GCC. Then there were reports about US pressure on the Quartet to at least allow Qatar to use their airspace. Recent reports have hinted that the US believes that Qatar’s switch to Iranian airspace may pose a “miscalculated” danger to American soldiers.
“Tehran makes financial gains from the use of its airspace, a situation that runs counter to the US resolve to tighten its economic stranglehold on Iran,” said sources quoted by the Kuwaiti paper Al-Qabas.
A Saudi source told Al-Ahram Weekly that nothing had changed in the Saudi positions, however, adding that “if the Americans are concerned about the safety of their troops in and out of Doha, there could be an exception for American military planes to use our airspace.”
The source reiterated the Saudi commitment to keeping “everything the same” for Qatar Airways and the rest of the boycott measures. He added that this position was common to all the members of the Quartet.
According to the Saudi source, the Qataris are feeling the pain of the boycott more than they admit in public. He said the atmosphere in Qatar was not as good as had been claimed and that the Qataris were becoming less at ease with their leadership not managing to end the crisis with their neighbours.
Around the time of the Eid at the end of May, diplomatic missions started mainly by Kuwait tried to find a way of breaking the stalemate in the crisis.
In a television interview last week, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed Bin Abdel-Rahman Al Thani said that Kuwait had launched a new initiative to end the emirate’s long-standing dispute with its Gulf neighbours, adding that “the atmosphere is positive about this initiative.”
He hoped the new move would result in ending the three-year crisis. “We hope that the new initiative will differ from the previous ones,” he said.
Over the past three years, Kuwait has sought to end the rift without success. Last September an opening initiated by the Americans halted when Qatar portrayed it as a compromise promoted by Saudi Arabia.
It has been Doha’s policy to try to present the crisis as a rift with Saudi Arabia, ignoring the rest of the Quartet on the assumption that negotiations with the Saudis will sideline the other members.
This tactic has worked before, but this time round the Quartet has been taking the solid position that Qatar will have to meet its demands first before any negotiations on resuming relations begin.
In an interview with the BBC, Saudi representative to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi stressed that the boycott of Qatar could continue for years if Doha did not change its position, saying that officials in Qatar were the only ones who could decide.
He added that Qatar’s failure to respond to the Quartet’s demands was “nothing more than intransigence and narrow-mindedness, as well as the result of its wrong view that it can achieve gains with external alliances rather than with its Gulf brothers.”
These external alliances are deepening the crisis rather than softening it. The Quartet demands include ending the Turkish military presence, downgrading the relationship with Iran, non-interference in the internal affairs of the GCC states, and avoiding incitement and giving space to media platforms for agitators and opponents of the Gulf states as well as for terrorists and their supporters.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said the Gulf region had changed and could not return to how it was before. He tweeted that “I do not think that the Qatar crisis, on its third anniversary, deserves comment,” adding that “paths have diverged, and the Gulf has changed and cannot go back to what it was.”
According to a Dubai-based Saudi analyst, the steps taken by Qatar, especially its alliance with Turkey, make any opening in ending the crisis more remote. Many in the Gulf see Turkey’s support for the insurgencies in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world as supported and likely financed by Qatar.
As a result, the new Kuwaiti efforts might not get much further than previous attempts at ending the standoff. The talk about American pressure also looks like wishful thinking by the Qataris.
The US Trump administration is already mired in escalating internal issues, from the Covid-19 pandemic to rising protests over the killing of George Floyd, and these are likely to take up its attention in the near future at least.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly