Official sources in the Gulf have downplayed recent media reports suggesting that the Qatar crisis could be resolved soon.
The optimism about a solution to the crisis that led Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to sever their relations with Qatar in June 2017 came after statements by the Saudi foreign minister in the US last week. Prince Faisal Bin Farhan met his American counterpart Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he was taking part in US-Saudi strategic dialogue at the State Department in Washington.
In a virtual discussion hosted by the US think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Saudi foreign minister said that “we continue to be willing to engage with our Qatari brothers, and we hope that they are as committed to that engagement.”
He added that “but we do need to address the legitimate security concerns of the Quartet, and I think there is a path towards that,” in a reference to the four countries that have severed their relations with Qatar. The hint that led to some concluding that there would be a thawing of the ice was Bin Farhan’s referring to a solution “in the relatively near future.”
The hope of finding a solution to the Qatar crisis in the “near future” has been shared by all since the start of the crisis three years ago, but that hope is conditional, as the Saudi foreign minister said, on Qatar stopping its support for terrorism and intervention in its neighbours’ affairs.
Efforts have been underway since the start of the crisis to get Qatar to change its course of “sabotaging brotherly relations” using its tools of support for terrorist groups and destabilisation of other states in the region.
The Quartet has needed actions and not the empty commitments that Doha has promised but never acted on. Qatar has insisted that its positions are “sovereign foreign-policy matters” and that no one has the right “to dictate to it what to do.”
Many sources confirmed to Al-Ahram Weekly that there was nothing in Bin Farhan’s statements to indicate that there were current talks. “There is nothing new from Doha to show that the concerns of the Quartet have been met,” one source said. He was talking about the main reasons for the Quartet’s boycott of Qatar, which has demanded Qatar’s “cutting ties with Islamist groups, limiting ties with Iran and expelling Turkish troops stationed in the country.”
The Qatar-affiliated media that hyped the prospects of an imminent solution to the crisis is focused on what it has called a “truce” between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This has long been the way Doha has tried to drive a wedge between the Quartet countries, by giving the false impression that relations with Riyadh are no longer on ice like they are with the rest of the boycotting countries.
A Saudi source stressed that Riyadh was not acting separately from the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain when it comes to the Qatar crisis. “It is a collective position, and the solution will be the same, not individually,” he said.
Commenting on last year’s attempt to open a Saudi-Qatari dialogue with American support, he said that what the Qatari foreign minister had tried to convey to the media as a Saudi-Qatari process was not correct. He attributed the failure of that effort in December 2019 to a ploy from Doha “to seek a rapport with Saudi Arabia alone. But it was told bluntly by the Saudi leadership that any resolution of the crisis needed to be with the four countries concerned.”
The message from Saudi Arabia and the other countries is still the same: “change your behaviour, and then we can talk.” Trying to get outside pressure to push for hollow talks will not do any good, Saudi sources have said.
As one pundit put it, “the Americans will not manage to do what others couldn’t do,” probably referring to efforts by the late emir of Kuwait sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad who had been mediating between Doha and neighbouring countries in an effort to resolve the crisis. But the Qataris never gave the late emir any leverage to convince the Saudis or Emiratis that the other party was serious.
Though the new Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad, has promised to follow the course of his predecessor, not many think he can do much to push the Qatar crisis to a solution. The Americans have been asking all the parties to sort out their differences, but they have not really been putting a lot of pressure on them, as the Qataris admitted last year when phone links between Riyadh and Doha were planned.
Even the anticipation that there will likely be a Democratic Party president in the White House after next month’s elections in the US is unlikely to pressure the Quartet to soften its stance on the crisis. One American scholar who has written extensively on the Gulf said that the new American administration will have other priorities besides “wrangling between Gulf neighbours,” as he put it.
The conclusion is that the Qatar crisis is still on ice and that there is no indication of a solution. The media reports are just another attempt to interpret Saudi statements in such a way as to give a false impression of a resolution.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly