In 2017, a boycott had started in response to Doha’s support for terrorist groups seeking to destabilise the region.
The Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, attended the meeting of the Supreme Council of the GCC for the first time in four years, flying direct from Doha to Al-Ula as Saudi Arabia agreed to open air, sea and land borders with Qatar on Monday night. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman received Sheikh Tamim with a hug at the airport, flouting Covid-19 precautions that he followed with other delegates.
Bahrain Crown Prince Sheikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa thanked Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud for his “efforts to guarantee Gulf solidarity”. Bahrain is assuming the rotating presidency of GCC this year, but the summit was moved from Manama to Al-Ula due to recent tensions between Qatar and Bahrain. This also gave Riyadh the opportunity to enhance its regional role after claiming an international one by hosting the G20 Summit in November.
The choice of venue was also emblematic of the new Saudi vision for the future, focusing not only on oil and gas revenues but diversifying the economy to meet upcoming challenges. The Maraya Concert Hall at Al-Ula, a cube-shaped structure covered by over 9500 square metres of mirrors reflecting the striking landscape: a “mirrored wonder”. Like Neom, the futuristic city planned to be built in Tabuk province, it is a symbol of Saudi reform.
The end of the Saudi-Qatari boycott was announced hours before the summit by the Kuwaiti foreign minister, who hinted that the other three countries boycotting Qatar would soon follow suit. Kuwait has been mediating reconciliation efforts since Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (the Quartet) severed all relations with Qatar in 2017. The current deal was brokered by US President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and his team “while keeping the Kuwaitis informed”, as one American diplomat put it. That is why Kushner flew to Al-Ula for the signing on Monday.
The Sultan of Oman and King of Bahrain both skipped the meeting, where they were represented by the Omani deputy prime minister and the Bahraini crown prince, while UAE was represented by its Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashed Al-Maktoum. The one non-Gulf member of the Quartet, Egypt, was represented by its foreign minister. The absence of Sultan Haitham Bin Tarek Al-Said and King Hamad Al- Khalifa left the summit with only one new face, the new emir of Kuwait.
American and Gulf sources agree that drafting the Qatar-Saudi deal was no easy task. American teams working with Riyadh and Doha were reportedly going back and forth between the two parties until the last moment. The Saudis wanted to incorporate the concerns of the rest of the Quartet, especially UAE and Egypt, but in the end the American-brokered agreement was reduced from 18 points to just a handful. The whole process could have faltered on Sunday due to what an American source called “miscommunication between the Saudis and the Qataris”. That’s why Kushner delayed his planned flight to Al-Ula from Sunday to Monday.
The deal focused on trust-building measures including ending the boycott and media campaigns, in addition to promises concerning the thorny issues and concerns of the Quartet like Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant groups, Turkish military presence in Qatar and cosy relations with Iran.
Drafting the document was completed by Kushner’s team following his visit to Riyadh and Doha in November last year and his meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and Qatari Emir Tamim. He was accompanied by White House Advisers Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook. Berkowitz started working with the Saudi side and Hook with the Qatari to finalise the text.
Apart from opening borders and airspace, other promises in the document are almost identical to a similar agreement Qatar signed with the rest of the GCC member states under the auspices of late Saudi king Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud in 2014, later reneging on all commitments which led to the boycott three years later.
As one Western diplomat said, “though it might be called the ‘Kushner Declaration’, the GCC countries meant by the reconciliation to ‘clear the table’ to prepare for the incoming Joe Biden administration assuming office in the White House on 20 January.”
The end of the boycott is another example of the process of “undoing” Trump policies in the last four years, as many believe he condoned the move by the Quartet in 2017. His son-in-law and adviser tried to achieve a last-minute gain by steering the Gulf reconciliation to the benefit of normalisation with Israel. As many analysts believe, Qatar is ready to normalise relations, paving the way for Saudi Arabia to follow suit.
One British academic who worked in Riyadh and Dubai told Al-Ahram Weekly: “The Saudis know that pressure is coming soon from the Biden administration to end the war in Yemen. They needed to ‘neutralise’ Qatari and possibly Turkish backing of Houthi militias and the Muslim Brotherhood there. So ending the boycott of Qatar might help to contain losses in their campaign south of the border.”
The Biden effect will also influence the situation in Libya. Qatari and Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood there, represented by the Tripoli and Misrata militias, would be emboldened by Washington’s pressure to include Islamists in any political settlement.
“Neutralising Qatar is thought to help in making the settlement in Libya less harmful to Egypt in the long run. But this might not be plausible, as Qatar might have more influence directly or through Turkish military intervention. Egypt will be directly impacted, as its porous border with Libya allows terrorist and arms infiltrations, though the Gulf countries would not feel a direct threat”, the British academic added.
A senior diplomat from one of the Gulf countries told the American website Axios that the agreement “does not mark the end of the Gulf rift. Some of the issues were solved, but the root causes for the rift – bad personal relationships between leaders and big policy differences on Iran, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood – are still there”.
Besides ending the Qatar boycott, the GCC Summit discussed post-pandemic economic recovery and Gulf cooperation.
The six GCC countries have a GDP of about $1.6 trillion, and the capital value of their financial markets is estimated at $3 trillion, making them one of the biggest economic blocs in the world. Yet it is facing challenges as it steers a new course and abandons old policies. That is why the first summit in the GCC’s fifth decade is so significant for GCC economics and integration.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.