Talks held on the Qatari crisis during the Arab Quartet’s boycott of Doha over the last three years had reached a dead end. This last round, however, proved to be a different story.
“Fruitful discussions have taken place during the past period, during which all parties stressed their keenness on Gulf and Arab solidarity and stability, and to reach a final agreement that will achieve what they aspire to in terms of lasting solidarity among their countries and the best interests of their peoples,” read a tweet by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Nasser Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti foreign minister, in early December.
For over two years the late emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed spearheaded efforts to mediate between Qatar and the Arab Quartet, the latter comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. No breakthrough had been achieved since the boycott started in June 2017.
Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the half-brother of the late emir, continued the same course.
Qatar is now “optimistic about resolving the Gulf crisis,” according to a tweet by Sheikh Mohamed Al-Thani, the Qatari foreign minister. “Kuwait’s statement is an important step towards resolving the Gulf crisis. We are thankful to Kuwait for mediating the crisis since the beginning. We also appreciate the US efforts made in this regard, and we affirm that our priority has been and will remain the interest and security of people of the Gulf and the region.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan stated that Riyadh “appreciates Kuwait’s efforts to bridge the gap in viewpoints that led to the Gulf crisis. We appreciate the US efforts in this regard, and we aspire to success for the benefit and good of the region.”
At the 16th IISS Manama Dialogue held in Bahrain on 4 December, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said resolving the Gulf crisis “has become possible” and that the US is hoping to see it through.
Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain have kept a watchful eye on the talks, but made no comment.
Analysts had different interpretations to what has been going on behind closed doors. While some observers suggest that Saudi Arabia “has abandoned its allies” and that Doha will come out the winner after imposing its vision. Doha-informed observers, on the other hand, claim Saudi Arabia will prioritise Qatar over its allies. However, in fact UAE-informed counterparts say that, while Qatar sought a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia alone, Riyadh is insisting on a comprehensive resolution. For Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, Cairo is eager to resolve the crisis provided that Doha meets the demands of the Arab Quartet.
On announcing the boycott in 2017, the Arab Quartet demanded that Qatar should shut down the satellite news channel AlJazeera and other Qatari-funded media outlets such as Araby 21, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, the Rasd network and others, in addition to severing its ties with Iran and ending Turkish military presence in its territories. The Arab Quartet also requested that Doha should sever its ties with Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and Syrian extremists.
The four countries also demanded that Qatar should hand over figures who are wanted in the Arab Quartet countries, such as Muslim Brotherhood theorist Youssef Al-Qaradawi and extremist preacher Wagdi Ghoneim.
Doha found these demands to be in breach of its sovereignty, and declared its refusal to abide by them, requesting unconditional negotiations instead. Despite the significance of the Gulf region to Washington, the administration of outgoing president Donald Trump did not manage to smooth over the resulting rift. The Trump administration wanted a Gulf united against Iran but ended up siding with the Quartet. Trump later pressured Riyadh to open its airspace to Qatari aviation to stop the flow of money to Tehran, since it was being paid millions of dollars for allowing Qatari aircraft to use its airspace.
It would be a challenge for the region if a rapprochement does not take place, especially considering the sensitive situation in Yemen, where a costly war between the Quartet and Iran has been fought by proxy, and from which all parties are eager to extricate themselves.
A legitimate, internationally recognised government has yet to find its way to Sanaa, and the military approach has not worked. Harsh humanitarian as well as security, economic and political conditions have resulted, with the president changing three times and no gains achieved. Likewise the Iran-backed Houthis: they control the majority of inhabited areas in the country but have yet to achieve a decisive victory or improve their supporters’ living conditions.
The administration of President-elect Joe Biden will probably want to reinstate Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, which the Gulf states had opposed at the time, with Saudi Arabia calling on Washington to involve the Gulf in future negotiations with Iran. But this demand would be difficult to meet if the Gulf remained divided, and this is likely to be a principal factor in Riyadh agreeing to negotiate with Doha.
After the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani and the chief Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which make it difficult for Tehran to persuade its hardline wing of their efficacy, US-Iranian negotiations might not be easy to resume. Being more closely allied to pro-Israel parties that refuse to grant Iran any advantages, the Biden administration might be additionally constrained.
With the Riyadh-sympathetic Mustafa Al-Kadhemi assuming the leadership of the Iraqi government recently, the Gulf did deal Iran a tangible blow. Suleimani’s murder in Iraq was useful for Iran mobilising its supporters, but Al-Kadhemi’s visit to Saudi Arabia reflects the Iraqi people’s uprising against Iran’s influence and its supporters of the regime in Baghdad.
The Lebanese government, controlled by Iran’s arm in Lebanon, Hizbullah, is likewise compromised, not only due to popular anger following the Beirut port explosion, but also because, despite the bloody history between Hizbullah and Israel, Beirut is in indirect negotiations with Israel over the maritime borders, “catching the last locomotive in the normalisation train”.
One thing is for sure: the Iranian-Saudi conflict will not end in a single round.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.