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Thursday, June 24, 2021

GCC crisis: Where does Qatar stand with former blockading quartet?

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The blockade was imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in 2017 over accusations that the Gulf state’s supports terrorism.

It has been four years since the Gulf region witnessed its most damaging dispute in years that created a major divide between the region.

Between June 5, 2017 until January 5 of this year, the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] faced major tensions, some of which were resolved when the Al-Ula Accord was signed at the 41st GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia, though some issues remain pending.

Now, four years later and following the signing of the historic accord, we take a look at where each of the formerly blockading nations now stands in terms of reconciling with Qatar.

Saudi Arabia

In 2017, Saudi Arabia immediately severed all of its diplomatic ties with Qatar and shut down its shared land border with Qatar [also known as the Abu Samra crossing], a critical trade entry point. Its heavy regional influence forced other countries to follow in its footsteps, namely Yemen, Mauritania and the Maldives.

This later sparked panic among residents and citizens, who flooded grocery stores amid fears of a shortage in food and essential items, given that 90% of Qatar’s supplies were imported. The Saudi kingdom also pirated beIN Sports, creating its own broadcaster under the name of “BeoutQ”.

But many smear campaigns later and despite rising tensions, Saudi Arabia was a key player in restoring diplomatic ties with Qatar, most notably since the election of US President Joe Biden, whose policies have proven to focus on reversing those of former President Donald Trump.

At the time of the blockade in 2017, Trump had himself encouraged the blockade.

“For Saudi Arabia, improving relations with Qatar is important because it’s what the United States wants to be done and if it weren’t for the election of Joe Biden…now that there’s a new administration in Washington, the Saudis feel that they need to improve their relations with Qatar and put an end to the rift,” Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies [CIRS] at Georgetown University in Qatar [GU-Q], told Doha News.

When a major breakthrough was announced in December last year, Qatar initially revealed that it was only engaging in talks with Saudi Arabia as it believed it “represented the countries involved in the dispute”.

“For Qatar, this [bilateral ties] seems to be the most important because of Saudi Arabia’s position in the Arabian peninsula and also because of the economic side of Saudi Arabia and Hajj,” said Dr. Kamrava, describing the Doha-Riyadh ties as the “most repaired”.

Immediate progress was witnessed even hours ahead of the Al-Ula signing with the opening of the shared Qatar-Saudi borders. Meanwhile, a public warm welcome from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [MBS] the moment Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani landed in Riyadh for the first time in three years instantly signalled the return of somewhat normal ties.

Read also: Qatar’s amir visits Saudi Arabia following invitation from king

Chargés d’affaires of both countries have also been having regular meetings in order to reopen the embassies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with travel resuming to normal and citizens of both countries being able to freely enter the neighbouring Gulf nations.

There have also been regular phone conversations between Qatar’s Amir and MBS. In a March phone call, the two leaders reviewed the “Saudi Green Initiative” and the “Middle East Green Initiative”, a collaboration that further accentuated the restoration of both countries’ ties.

“We have seen concrete steps between the two countries, we have seen the exchange of visits of the highest levels including with His Highness the Amir and a couple of visits by the foreign minister to Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Majed Al-Ansari, Assistant Professor of Political Sociology at Qatar University.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia also started mending their ties in May following the 2018 dispute over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Riyadh-Ankara reconciliation is likely to have been facilitated by Qatar.

The former blockading quartet at the time said action taken against Qatar was due to its relations with Iran and Turkey, both of which have had their own political rivalries with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

“It appears that although it will take many years for the trust to be re-established, there’s an understanding that the two countries [Saudi Arabia and Qatar] need each other and that it is to their advantage to put aside their differences,” said Dr. Kamrava.

Despite the progress, there have been no movements to resume the flow of Saudi products onto Qatar’s shelves.

United Arab Emirates

Though not on the same level, Qatar-UAE ties have appeared to slowly move onto a more positive path in recent days, with Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani confirming the two countries held several rounds of discussion to pave the way for restoring their relations.

The Qatari official “sensed a positive vision to overcome differences” during the meetings.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has also reopened its airspace for Qatar’s airlines and reportedly resumed trade activities, with reports suggesting an oil shipment between the two countries took place earlier in March.

“When it comes to Qatar and the UAE, and Bahrain, while they may seem different in the media, it is very clear that until now there are no tangible steps being taken by the Emiratis or the Bahrainis to reach the level of rapprochement that it reached with the Saudis,” said Dr. Al Ansari, saying that more diplomatic steps need to be taken.

Read also: Qatar’s foreign minister reveals ‘positive progress’ in UAE talks

While talks between diplomats from the neighbouring Gulf states have been taking place, media hostilities still appear to remain.

Most recently, the UAE’s ambassador to Israel Mahmoud Al-Khaja attacked Qatar’s leading broadcaster Al Jazeera while visiting the chief of a right wing Israeli movement that called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

He accused Al Jazeera of shifting the narrative of the events in the apartheid state and not reflecting the so-called truth. The comments were made just days after Al Jazeera’s media building in Gaza was completely levelled by Israeli airstrikes during an 11-day indiscriminate bombing campaign on the besieged Strip.

Meanwhile, digital analysts and experts have pointed towards several anti-Qatar social media campaigns that were reportedly launched by the UAE.

Most recently, delegates at the Federation of African Journalists [FAJ], a Pan-African organisation, denounced attempts believed to be perpetrated by the UAE to manipulate journalists in Africa to participate in a campaign against Qatar’s ability to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The signatories of a statement slammed the UAE’s suspicious movements and attempts to rally African journalists against the World Cup in Qatar by trying to manipulating members of the press into inaccurately covering the events in the Gulf state.

“My understanding is that there are lingering suspicions and there seems to be some signs that the Emirati campaign against Qatar to give it a negative image internationally has not fully stopped,” said Dr. Kamrava.

As of now, there are no updates regarding the reopening of the embassies of both countries.

Egypt

Qatar and Egypt’s ties have appeared to develop over the past month, especially since the two countries joined forces to push for a ceasefire in Gaza to bring to an end a deadly Israeli offensive in Gaza.

A May visit by Qatar’s foreign minister to Cairo also resulted in a mutual agreement to develop relations between the two states while further cooperating in order to resolve regional challenges.

Sheikh Tamim also took the initiative to invite Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to visit Qatar, which would be his first visit since 2017.

“Egypt is a very different case, Egypt was never part of the GCC. It just went along with its boycott of Qatar because of the fact that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had a marriage of convenience,” said Dr. Kamrava.

Qatar’s population of Egyptian citizens have also been particularly affected by the three-year-long dispute, with many unable to connect with their families and friends, making the resumption of travel a crucial part of the reconciliation.

While attacks towards Qatar by Egyptian media have toned down, there is still some aggression towards the Gulf state by less-prominent media outlets and personalities. When the blockade was lifted, there was a change in the tone of several critics, among them  television host Amr Adib who notoriously attacked Doha throughout the crisis.

On Egypt’s end, concerns over Al Jazeera’s coverage of human rights violations committed by the Sisi regime have been raised by foreign minister Sameh Shoukry.

However, Qatar has repeatedly dismissed any hand in changing the broadcaster’s editorial policy, noting it is an independent entity that cannot be linked to any reconciliation agreements.

Among the other points of contention in 2017 was Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood – which is outlawed by Egypt.

However, Qatar’s foreign minister confirmed this point was not part of the discussions with Egypt and noted there are no longer “outstanding issues with Egypt”.

Read also: Timeline: How the GCC crisis erupted over three years

The restoration of ties also appeared to play a role in thawing Egypt-Turkey relations, with the two countries holding meetings over the past couple of months for the first time since 2013.

“Qatar has been an incredibly strategic conduit between the rest of the GCC and clearly important regional actors with whom the GCC has had very tense relations…so Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement, and also a potential Saudi Turkish rapprochement, has been quite important,” said Dr. Kamrava.

Bahrain

Of all four countries involved in the crisis, Bahrain’s position still remains unclear, with no solid signs of reconciliation as of yet.

“In terms of Bahrain, I don’t know of any moves to repair the relation on paper…my sense is that there’s too much bad blood, too much animosity, for things to become normal just yet,” said Dr. Kamrava.

When the breakthrough was reported last December following Trump’s Senior Adviser Jared Kushner’s visit to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain was the only country to delay issuing a public statement.

In the weeks prior to the announce, Bahrain continuously attempted to provoke Qatar by breaching its territorial waters and airspace.

Throughout those incidents, Bahrain continued to vilify Qatar for arresting those who have entered its territories, despite Manama’s role in imposing an illegal land, air and sea blockade on the country.

Meanwhile, Manama’s media war against Doha persisted, portraying Qatar as the obstacle to achieving real reconciliation.

Most recently, Bahrain’s Al Watan media outlet created a docu-series outlining the formation of Al Zubarah, claiming the area does not belong to Qatar.

 

“The Bahraini media has been very actively targeting Qatar…it’s very clear that the Bahrainis have a different view on how the rapprochement is going to take place,” said Dr. Al Ansari.

Bahrain also filed a “note of protest” to the Qatari foreign ministry over an episode aired by Al Jazeera in March as part of the “Out of Context” programme, which focused on a book by Nader Matrouk that delved into the torture of opposition prisoners in Bahrain’s Jau Central Prison in 2015.

Responding to the episode, Bahrain’s foreign ministry expressed its “strong condemnation”, and claimed it “contained false information and allegations put forward by hired instigators”.

This also happened after a February visit by Bahrain’s Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Regional and GCC Affairs Ambassador Waheed Mubarak Sayyar to Qatar, raising questions regarding the status of their bilateral ties.

“It’s very clear that the Qatari and Bahraini relations have not resumed course, Qatari citizens are still required to obtain a visa,” said Dr. Al Ansari.

Shortly after the signing of the declaration in January, Qatari families attempting to visit Bahrain were denied entry at the King Fahd Causeway despite the opening of the land, air, and sea borders.

Bahrain’s border authorities asked Qataris to register for an “online visa” as per blockade regulations.

Read also: Bahrain bars Qatari family from entering in latest provocation since GCC reconciliation: reports

In another provocative move, Bahrain reportedly seized 130 properties belonging to the children of Sheikh Khalid bin Nasser bin Abdulla Al Missned’s, the maternal cousins of Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

According to the the Bahraini gazette, where authorities publish legally binding decisions, the Bahraini Ministry of Works, Municipalities Affairs and Urban Planning announced that it seized the properties in Manama “in order to expand government facilities as requested by the Ministry of Interior”.

“[It is unclear] why the Bahrainis are taking such hardline positions, some reports talked about an Emirati factor in the Bahraini position, however, it’s very clear that the Bahrainis are unhappy with the level of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Al Ansari.

There have been no news regarding any bilateral visits, trade nor the update of policies between the two states, generating questions in this particular chapter of the GCC reconciliation.

“I think we have entered a new phase in the evolution of the GCC where there’s a new realisation by the Qatari leadership that it cannot and should not trust other members, at least Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t maintain friendly relations with them. Having friendly relations and trust are two different things,” said Dr. Kamrava.


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