In June 2017, Egypt joined three Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – in severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, starting a total boycott of the small country. Qatar’s national carrier was no longer allowed to fly to the four countries or cross their air space, and Saudi Arabia blocked the only land route that links Qatar to the outside world. It was a complete embargo hardly ever seen in inter-Arab politics.
The four countries, now called the Arab Quartet, laid down 13 conditions for Qatar to accept in order to lift the blockade and resume diplomatic relations. Qatar was to stop aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist groups, cut its close relations with both Turkey and Iran and close down AlJazeera, the satellite channel that had incited against the four countries, notably Egypt, since the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power on 30 June 2013. Egyptian-Qatari relations had been tense for a decade before June 2017. The Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Qatari media blamed the government and police for terrorist attacks, notably in Sinai, failing to condemn specific acts.
For three years both Kuwait, aided by a Trump administration keen on Gulf unity in the face of “the Iranian threat”, tried to mediate the conflict till it was finally resolved last week. The relevant parties agreed to lift the embargo before the Qataris publicly accepted the 13 conditions.
The Joe Biden win in November pushed mediation efforts forward, and Kuwait managed to plan a reconciliation agreement for the 41st Gulf Summit (the Sultan Qaboos and Sheikh Sabah Summit, as it was called in honour of the recently deceased Omani and Kuwaiti monarchs), held on 5 January in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia.
The 5 January Al-Ula Declaration expresses the hope that the reconciliation agreement will restore unity among its signatories and bolster up their commitment to “the grand objectives” of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in which member states work together to safeguard the region’s security and stability, the region being GCC territory, as well as improving GCC foreign policy and “strategic partnerships” in the wider context of the Middle East. But regarding Egypt the declaration, though it affirms a “fraternal bond” with the GCC countries, lacks clear, precise wording or any reference to the Arab League or its charter. Nor is there any reference to Egypt’s support for the reconciliation being a reflection of its commitment to Arab solidarity. It is as though Gulf identity is above Arab identity.
A more pressing question is whether the reconciliation is sustainable. The morning after the Qatari foreign minister announced that the Al-Ula Declaration would have no effect on Qatar’s relations with either Iran or Turkey, and there have been no consequences. Many observers feel it is Qatar that stands to benefit from the reconciliation, since the embargo has been lifted and life is well on its way to resuming normality even though it is not clear what Qatar provided in return.
One school of thought feels that only superficial, cosmetic adjustments have been made in Qatari news coverage to accommodate the Quartet. According to another, more optimistic school of thought however, through Kuwaiti mediation Saudi Arabia and Qatar have set a time frame for the gradual, discreet severing of ties between Qatar on the one hand and both Iran and Turkey on the other. This remains to be seen. I personally doubt a deep or concrete change in Qatar’s policy on the two regional powers will take place. In fact I wouldn’t rule out a Saudi-Turkish rapprochement in the near future. A third school of the thought believes that, while the Saudi-Qatari reconciliation is real and sustainable, it leaves Qatar’s differences with Egypt and the UAE unresolved.
Be that as it may, the Quartet no longer exists – and that might not be such bad news for Egyptian diplomacy.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.