While a deal may be imminent between the Gulf Cooperation Council states, it may take longer to rebuild trust between the governments and people, writes Kristian Coates Ulrichsen.
Signs of a possible breakthrough in the intermittent attempts to resolve the blockade of Qatar have gained momentum in the aftermath of Jared Kushner’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar on December 2 and in the run up to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) annual summit later this month.
While this is neither the first time that Saudi and Qatari dialogue has taken place nor the first time that hopes for a reconciliation have been raised, the optics this time around look more promising that at any time since the Gulf crisis erupted more than three and a half years ago. Whatever the specifics of a deal, however, the process of rebuilding ties of trust and confidence likely will take far longer, given the bitterness of the rift and the fact that this crisis, unlike previous ones, hit individuals, families, and communities rather than just political elites.
Previous attempts to end or at least to ease the blockade of Qatar occurred in the months after the missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil installations in September 2019 and in the summer of 2020.
Both initiatives failed in part because Abu Dhabi was not on board with any Saudi decision to reconcile with Qatar, illustrating the unwieldy nature of diplomacy around the crisis, as Qatari-Saudi dialogue could go only so far before the Saudis ran into internal dynamics among the quartet of blockading states.
This time, Saudi officials have not only expressed their optimism that a deal may be in sight but also indicated that it would include all parties to the blockade, which include Bahrain and the UAE as well as Egypt.
One reason why an agreement may be in reach is that the ‘take it or leave it’ 13 demands tabled by the blockading states in June 2017 as the price Qatar would have to pay for lifting the blockade appear to have been replaced by a set of far more bridgeable issues that offer the basis for a negotiation.
While all parties have kept their cards close to their chest, it is likely that the issues currently on the table include some variation on lifting the airspace restrictions and reopening the land border in return for Qatar withdrawing some of the international arbitration cases filed against the blockading states.
“Qataris will rightly ask why they should trust some of their neighbours after the events not only of 2017 but also of 2014”
Other confidence-building measures may also be under consideration as well as mechanisms to strengthen the dispute resolution process at GCC level to ensure that individual countries do not again take matters into their own hands and act without regard to the GCC framework, as happened in 2017.
Moving forward, if a deal is announced it may come at the GCC Summit later in December. Since February, the GCC Secretary-General has been a Kuwaiti, Nayef bin Falah al-Hajraf, a former Minister of Finance who served in that post in the Kuwaiti government between 2017 and 2019.
In the absence of Kuwait’s late Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, who did more than anyone to prevent the escalation of the blockade into potential military action in 2017, the fact that the GCC is under a Kuwaiti Secretary-General is another hopeful sign for a diplomatic – and regional – solution to the Gulf crisis.
It certainly is an advance on previous years, when the GCC was led by a Bahraini who subsequently was appointed that country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs after he stepped away from the post of GCC Secretary-General earlier this year.
For diplomacy – and a deal – to work it will have to be respected by all sides and be part of an agreement that contains obligations that require all parties to make concessions and keep their part of the bargain.
Already there are some murmurings that Al Jazeera has toned down some of its coverage of Saudi Arabia in recent weeks but even if this is the case it should not only be one-directional and ought to be accompanied by similar moves by media in blockading states, including Sky News Arabia in the UAE.
Any agreement will need to be reciprocal and contain mutually agreed measures for monitoring commitments if it is to have any chance of succeeding in restoring and repairing fractured relationships.
Talk to different sides in the Gulf rift and it quickly becomes apparent that the real ‘gulf’ is in perceptions of bad faith. Qataris will rightly ask why they should trust some of their neighbours after the events not only of 2017 but also of 2014, and point out that, after 2014, Qatar sent all the right signals, which included sending forces to join the coalition in Yemen in September 2015 and receiving King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Doha with honor and respect in December 2016.
Qatar’s detractors, on the other hand, point to supposedly broken promises in the two Riyadh Agreements of 2013 and 2014 which suggests at the minimum a completely different perception or remembering of events.
Since June 2017, moreover, the human cost of the blockade has ensured that new layers of ill-will have been laid over the older ones, especially as extended families have been separated and the online and media spheres emerged as some of the bitterest frontlines of the crisis.
The biggest challenge that lies ahead may therefore not be in identifying the parameters of a deal – whether it be a full agreement or the parameters of a sequential process of repairing relations – but in rebuilding relationships and trust at the interpersonal and inter-communal levels.
While the next few weeks may offer greater clarity on the progress (or otherwise) of negotiations at the political level, it is these ties which will be harder to restore, given that the memories of the past three and a half years cannot simply be switched off. It is this challenge that is likely to outlast whatever outcome is declared at the GCC Summit.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Doha News, its editorial board or staff.