Hopes of a breakthrough in the crisis over Qatar faded after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit meeting in Riyadh last week, even if the overture provided an opportunity for Doha to reiterate its position and return to its traditional practices.
The main gain, according to observers, was for Qatar to claim that “we’ve done nothing wrong, and anyone who wants to change his position can contact us.” The warm welcome that was given by Saudi King Salman to the Qatari Prime Minister who replaced Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani at the summit confirmed leaks that contacts have been taking place over recent months to reconcile the Gulf countries.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut relations with Qatar over its continued support for terrorism and militant groups seeking to undermine the security of neighbouring countries. Qatar denied the allegations and reneged on commitments it had signed in 2014 to change its policies.
Since then, Qatar has been trying to open a dialogue with Saudi Arabia alone, especially after Kuwaiti and US mediation failed to thaw the ice with the four countries. These have insisted that Qatar must change its harmful policies before reconciliation can take place. However, over the past few months Saudi Arabia seems to have become more open to seeking reconciliation, especially after the 14 September attack on its oil facilities that cut its oil production in half.
Saudi Arabia has softened its stance on the crisis in Yemen, and it has been opening up to Qatar with the possibility of preparing for negotiations with Iran when conditions allow. Qatar has been cozying up to Iran and Turkey, both of which are at odds with Saudi Arabia and the other three countries boycotting Qatar.
Just after the summit in Riyadh, the Bahraini Foreign Minister criticised Qatar, reminding the world that it had failed to keep its promises. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gergash said that “Qatar’s suggestion that it can resolve the dispute by talking to Saudi Arabia alone, bypassing the other three boycotting nations, is a repeat of attempts to split ranks and evade commitments,” tweeting this a few days ago.
In another tweet he said that “addressing the long-term genuine grievances of the four states is at the heart of resolving Qatar’s crisis. We are not there yet.”
Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told the US news service Bloomberg in an interview that Qatar was not currently engaged in talks with the UAE over mending the rift. “Our conversation right now is with Saudi Arabia, and we think we are going to look at the rest of the issues at a later stage,” he said.
Al Thani also told Reuters that there had been some “small progress” in the talks with the Saudis.
In his opening speech at the Doha Forum in Qatar this week, Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani said that “our position towards solving this crisis has remained unchanged: lifting the blockade and settling differences through dialogue based on mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The issue of coexistence and good neighbourliness among nations is separate from any other issues.”
Western analysts in the region, or those following its affairs from the outside, say that the Qataris have got what they wanted in not capitulating to what they called the Saudi “Big Brother” attitude.
This might lead to a fissure within the quartet of countries boycotting Qatar, according to the analysts. The other three countries are unlikely to refuse Saudi overtures, but they will not be happy with a bilateral reconciliation that will give momentum to groups these countries are fighting, among them the Muslim Brotherhood.
In its efforts in Yemen, Saudi Arabia accepted the Yemen Muslim Brotherhood Islah Party as one of its partners in the negotiations. Though the Emiratis were not happy with that, they have stayed committed to their alliance with the Saudis on Yemen and other issues. But with Qatar and Turkey working hand-in-hand to support Brotherhood militias in Libya, posing a threat to Egypt’s national security, the discontent with the dialogue will increase.
For this reason, Bahrain announced its strong support for Egypt’s stance on Libya, and the Qatari-Saudi talks are being kept away from the media glare to guarantee their success, according to the Saudi official position. Qatar, however, will always find ways to leak information, reinforcing its claim that “they came to us, and they need a resolution of the crisis more than we do.”
Yet, there is a possibility of such developments stopping at any moment, like what happened in September 2017 when US and Kuwaiti mediation led to a telephone conversation between the Saudi crown prince and the emir of Qatar. When the Qatari News Agency QNA broadcast the news, saying that the two had agreed on various matters during the call, Riyadh announced that it was cancelling the contacts and accused the QNA of misrepresenting the conversation.
For now, Saudi Arabia wants peace with its adversaries but not necessarily a warm one. Other countries, including Egypt and Bahrain, would also not object to a cold peace as long as Qatari policies of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran and Turkey stop.
Nobody can guarantee that this will happen, however, not even Saudi Arabia if it chooses more than a cold peace with Qatar on its own and without the rest of the quartet, as many observers think it might.
The awkward position is that of the UAE, as its close relationship with Saudi Arabia is more important than any other issue. Qatari-backed groups have stepped up their campaigns against the Emirati leadership since the media reported a dialogue between Doha and Riyadh. Muslim Brotherhood sites on social media have led a concerted attack on the UAE and circulated fake news about differences between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The “cold peace” approach to the Qatar crisis could thus derail the strong relations among the countries of the region. That could lead to a heyday for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Qatar-supported groups, leading to more instability in the region.