Analysis: Business as usual in the Gulf

Ahmed Mostafa , Saturday 14 Dec 2019

Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani failed to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh this week, dampening talk of reconciliation, writes Ahmed Mostafa


There was business as usual at the 40th Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the Saudi capital Riyadh this week, where anticipation had been high about a reconciliation between the GCC member countries and Qatar. 

However, such hopes were dashed when Emir of Qatar Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani abstained from attending the summit meeting and sent his prime minister instead. At the ministerial meeting the day before the summit, the Qatari foreign minister also failed to turn up, sending his deputy to take Qatar’s chair in his place.

The GCC comprises six countries, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Since 2016, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt, have severed their relations with Qatar until it stops “supporting militants and threatening the security and stability of its neighbours,” among other charges.

Kuwait has been trying to mediate between Qatar and the three countries, but Qatar insists that it has done nothing wrong, while the boycotting countries stick to their position of no reconciliation without Qatar first meeting certain conditions.

Those were agreed in 2014 after a similar crisis with Saudi Arabia in 2013, but Qatar did not fulfill its obligations, according to the three countries. 

Some months ago, it was agreed in Cairo that the parties would stop their negative media campaigns against each other, but the Qatari-owned Aljazeera TV channel nevertheless kept up its negative coverage, especially against the UAE and Egypt.

Talk of a possible reconciliation started last month after suggestions that the participation of the three countries in a Gulf football tournament in the Qatari capital Doha could mean the thawing of the ice between the GCC members. A Wall Street Journal story about the Qatari foreign minister’s visit to Riyadh in September to discuss the issue added to the speculation.

A few days after the story appeared in the US newspaper, the Qatari foreign minister said some progress was being made to resolving issues with Saudi Arabia. But he reiterated the Qatari position that had caused the current impasse, claiming that Qatar had no official ties to the Muslim Brotherhood group and that this had no official presence in Qatar.

Some Brotherhood figures corroborated the statement by saying that the group, designated as a terrorist organisation by the four countries boycotting Qatar, had no official links with Doha. 

However, this has long been the Qatari way of evading responsibility and accusing others of “victimising” it for its “independent foreign policy.” The country’s disgruntled neighbours are no longer buying into these bluffs, and they complain that the Qataris want it to look like “we’re seeking their appeasement.” 

In 2017, a year or so after the boycott began, a telephone call between Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani and Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman was reported by the Qatari news agency in a way the Saudis said had “misrepresented” the call to dialogue. The mediation efforts came to an abrupt stop before the dialogue even started.

A Saudi source said that Saudi Arabia was alert to Qatari ploys of trying to portray the crisis as a “misunderstanding” with Riyadh that could be sorted out. His comment was based on Doha’s efforts to get round the main complaints of the four countries by opening a dialogue with Saudi Arabia. 

The Qataris said the problem was the Emirati “wedge” between them and the Saudis, ironic because they have been trying to wedge themselves between the Emiratis and the Saudis. 

If the question for the Saudis is to choose between the UAE and Qatar, the answer is that “Riyadh won’t risk its strong alliance with the UAE for a rapprochement with an unreliable Qatar,” as one Gulf analyst put it. 

However, there have been attempts to scale down tensions in the Gulf region, from seeking a political solution to the Yemen crisis to anticipated dialogue with Iran. Qatar is on the margins of this, though the Qatari-linked media has been pushing stories over the last few days to make it look as if Qatar’s position is the main issue in the region.

The Qatari emir’s abstention from the GCC Summit meeting was an indication of the size of the issue for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Even though any future negotiations with Iran would require a unified Gulf front, the three GCC members do not trust Qatar’s commitment. 

Qatar will not relinquish its close relations with Iran, and it has also been cementing its ties with Turkey in an unprecedented way. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently inaugurated a Turkish military base in Qatar, and Qatar is supporting Erdogan’s adventures in Syria and Libya.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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