The embrace that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman gave Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on the latter’s arrival in Saudi Arabia after three and a half years of rupture between the two countries signalled the beginning of a resolution to the Gulf crisis. It was essentially a settlement between Riyadh and Doha. Similarly affectionate scenes were noticeably absent during the actual summit.
The level of representation spoke volumes about the council meeting which came about as the result of a US-backed initiative led by Kuwait and Oman. Cairo was represented by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri who expressed his gratitude to the Kuwaiti Emir Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah for making the summit possible. According to informed Egyptian sources, a number of convergent interests compelled the participants to overcome the rupture even if some issues remain pending. One point of convergence is Washington. The Saudi crown prince and Kuwaiti emir, in their speeches, stressed the importance of the American role in enabling the reconciliation.
The US delegation was headed by Jared Kushner, son-in-law and advisor to President Donald Trump who was keen to see the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit convene and conclude the reconciliation, if only formally, so that his administration could take credit for this development before his departure from the White House on 20 January. Some reports in the US media referred to this as a “tidying up of the desk”.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt had listed 13 conditions for ending their boycott of Qatar, though at the time there was no indication whether or not these conditions had to be met in advance of an ending of the boycott. There were no indicators in advance of how each Quartet member stood with respect to the need for Doha to meet them in advance. According to Egyptian sources, Cairo had lodged its conditions with Kuwait ahead of the meeting, and indicated that it would follow the Saudi lead in opening its airspace to Qatar if these conditions were met. In this context, the reopening of Saudi airspace to Qatar on the eve of the summit spoke volumes.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Hafez, in an official statement released soon after the summit commenced on Tuesday, underscored Egypt’s determination to support “sincere efforts to preserve the unity of Arab ranks and to reach a reconciliation that will reinvigorate the Arab house and create a space for constructive cooperation and the preservation of the interests of all parties”. Hafez also stressed the need for “good faith in order to achieve a genuine reconciliation that revives the special qualities of Arab relations, stimulates solidarity and the preservation of joint interests, enshrines the commitment to non-intervention in the domestic affairs of others, combats threats to the security and stability of Arab nations and peoples, and safeguards Arab national security.”
Two days before the summit, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmed Al-Nasser Al-Sabah who delivered a message from Kuwaiti Emir Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah. President Al-Sisi lauded the emir’s efforts to promote a reconciliation, a drive that had begun several years ago under his predecessor, the late emir Sabah Al-Ahmed. He also praised the part that Riyadh has played on behalf of the members of the Quartet.
The closing statement of the summit, or the Al-Ula Declaration as it has been called, noted that Egypt’s signing of the document attests to the brotherly relations that bind Egypt to the GCC countries and is consistent with a core premise of the GCC charter — coordination, cooperation, and integration between GCC states to serve the higher aims of the Arab nation. The 101st paragraph of the statement, which pertains to Egypt, stressed that the GCC supports the security and stability of Egypt and values its efforts to bolster Arab national security and peace in the region. It also expressed GCC support for Egypt in its dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project.
In a press conference after the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan was asked whether diplomatic relations with Qatar would resume. “Yes,” he responded. “What we agreed on was to let bygones be bygones and to restore full diplomatic relations among the [GCC] members with Egypt’s participation.”
According to sources in Cairo, Egypt views the reconciliation as an initiative in progress, its fate contingent on the degree of good faith shown in realising concrete solutions to pending concerns. Qatari-Iranian relations are a case in point. Prince Bin Salman, in his keynote address, spoke of the threat that the Iranian nuclear and missile programme poses to Gulf security and the detrimental impact of the close relationship between Tehran and Qatar on the Yemeni crisis. (US intelligence reports have revealed Doha’s role in financing the provision of spare parts for the Iranian-made drones that Houthi militias have used to strike Saudi targets).
“We are today in need of unity to counter the threats against our region represented in the Iranian regime’s nuclear programme, its ballistic missiles, and agenda of sabotage adopted by its sectarian proxies,” said Bin Salman. His words suggest that Riyadh expects a shift in Doha’s position towards Iran in the framework of the reconciliation.
Qatari incitement against Quartet members and its position on the Muslim Brotherhood are also core issues. Saudi Arabia has recently joined Egypt in banning the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas Qatar continues to fund Muslim Brotherhood media outlets in Turkey and shelter Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Doha, some of them wanted on terrorist-related charges in Egypt and in other Quartet states. According to Egyptian sources, Qatar has signalled to Kuwait that it could expel Muslim Brotherhood operatives to European capitals but not to the countries that have asked for their extradition.
Egyptian sources do not expect a major U-turn from Qatar: Doha, they say, had always focused mainly on the Gulf dimensions of the boycott. They also note that one of Doha’s most immediate concerns is to smooth the way for the World Cup which it is scheduled to host in 2022.
Although Doha appears keener to mend fences with Riyadh than with other members of the Quartet Gulf media outlets report that a Qatari delegation, headed by Finance Minister Sherif Al-Emadi, flew to Egypt on a private plane in order to open a new Qatari hotel, arriving the same day the summit convened in Al-Ula. Egyptian sources have stated that Cairo has no objection to the completion of Qatari projects in progress before the 30 June 2013 Revolution.
If the Qatari delegation’s visit was a gesture of good intent, sources say Cairo will welcome it in proportion to the extent to which Doha follows through on matters of substance. Cairo will not back down on its principles, they say, and expects Doha to take the first steps before restoring diplomatic relations or reciprocating in other ways. They add that Egypt’s participation in the summit should be interpreted as no more than a response to the Saudi and Kuwaiti invitation to attend.
From Cairo’s perspective, normalisation of relations with Qatar is contingent on Doha’s fulfilment of the conditions Cairo itemised in its letter to Kuwait. Cairo’s position is informed by Qatar’s behaviour towards Egypt since 30 June 2013, not just since the boycott began three and a half years ago. That said, Cairo will continue to act in keeping with its commitment to its Arab role and ties to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, in which framework it supports the drive to restore harmony in the GCC.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.