Qatar has admitted that an opportunity to resolve the crisis with its Gulf neighbours and Egypt has been missed.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last Saturday, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said that “unfortunately these efforts [to solve the issue] didn’t succeed and were suspended at the beginning of January.” He was referring to reports in November last year about a dialogue between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that had raised false expectations about reconciliation.
That effort, mediated by the emir of Kuwait, resulted in the Qatari foreign minister visiting the Saudi capital Riyadh and the Qatari emir being invited by Saudi King Salman to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in December.
However, the emir skipped the summit and sent his prime minister instead. Hopes of a resolution were dashed, though some saw an opening in the crisis when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain agreed to send their national football teams to Doha to take part in a Gulf regional tournament.
The Qatar crisis began in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (the Quartet) severed relations with Doha due to its support for terrorist and radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its continued interference in neighbouring countries’ internal affairs by launching destabilising media campaigns and siding with Iran and other countries meddling in the region.
The four countries drew up a list of demands to be met by Qatar to resume relations, noting that Doha had reneged on a previous agreement to stop its negative activities in 2013 and that no talks could start before it committed to this agreement. The Quartet stood by its position, while Qatar wanted to enter talks without any commitment.
When Saudi Arabia seemed to be open to the Kuwaiti mediation efforts, the Qatari media and Brotherhood media outlets portrayed the anticipated thawing of the ice as a Saudi retreat. Doha then demanded separate talks with the Saudis, ignoring the other countries in the Quartet, something that was not acceptable.
Officials in Doha repeated the idea that Saudi Arabia was now willing to “resolve the GCC crisis,” denying any responsibility for it and echoing the claim that Saudi Arabia wanted to “heal” the Gulf rifts to face Iranian threats. Moreover, the Qatari and Turkish media claimed there were disagreements within the Quartet, especially in Saudi-Emirati relations.
This was part of a concerted campaign of falsification to push Qatari untruths. Doha had wanted to deal with the Saudis alone, thinking that this way it could progress by entertaining “talks for the sake of talks.”
Last week, the Saudi media quoted a Gulf diplomat who suggested that Riyadh had pulled out of the talks because the Qatari negotiators “did not seem serious in reaching a compromise.”
He accused the Doha team of “prevaricating to prolong the negotiations” and said that Riyadh wanted a solution that included all the Quartet countries. When Qatar missed the opportunity, its media again started attacking the UAE and its leaders.
The ploy was clear to the Saudis, who would not be “used” in this manner by the Qatari leadership. Saudi writer and former editor of the daily Asharq Al-Awsat Salman Al-Dossari asked this week “what is left for Qatar after it missed the only real opportunity since the beginning of its crisis?”
“Many forget that Doha is nothing more than a big ‘media trumpet,’ which thinks that by creating media crises, interfering in the affairs of others and promoting fictitious stories and lies, it can tell its opponents that ‘we are here’.”
Leaks from the aborted opening talks show that “the Saudis were ‘unhappy’ that the Qataris had demanded ‘some sign of goodwill’ before engaging in reconciliation efforts,” he said. Saudi Arabia had been understanding on many issues, including overflight rights, but the Qataris had wanted the whole thing to look like the “Saudis are giving in, meaning we are not in the wrong and others are unjustly accusing us.”
It was not the first time that Doha had dodged the facts and tried to avoid any responsibility for the crisis. Many remember what Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman had earlier said about the Qatar issue, describing it “a very small thing” and the Quartet countries had more important issues to deal with.
This was clearly stated in an article in a Saudi daily this week, which wrote that “there is a bitter truth that Qatari politicians insist on neglecting: that they will remain isolated until they commit to extinguishing the fires that their policies have ignited.”
Qatar is now drifting further towards Iran and is the only country in the region that supports Turkey’s sponsoring of terrorism in Syria and Libya. As a result, the Qatar issue is frozen for the foreseeable future, and it is difficult to see Qatar responding positively to the concerns expressed by its neighbours, including its support for terrorist and radical groups.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.