The end of the Gulf crisis is big news — but Middle East sands always shift
It appears that the Gulf crisis is over. The schism between U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt, on the one hand, and Qatar, on the other, is ending today in a flurry of Arab robes and face-masked embraces at a desert air strip in northwest Saudi Arabia.
This being the Middle East, the wording must be cautious and it’s wise to include a “probably” or “perhaps” somewhere. But there is no doubting the potential significance of the news. An often absurd tiff between Washington’s allies has been taken off the front burner. The significance is arguably bigger than Israel’s recent “normalization” agreements with the UAE and Bahrain. And, given the attendance in the desert today of White House adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, it’s hard not to recognize it as an achievement of outgoing President Trump.
That success must be balanced against the president’s role in starting the crisis in May 2017, when he attended the Riyadh Arab summit on his first foreign trip. Emir Tamim of Qatar was also there, but his delegation knew something was going wrong when it found itself seated near the kitchens at the banquet. Within days, the Qatar news agency had been hacked to show fake pro-Iranian messages and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had broken relations with Qatar. A tweet by President Trump had suggested Qatari support for terrorism. Qatar’s Arab neighbors instituted an “embargo” — in effect, a blockade, cutting the land border and banning air traffic — complaining of Doha’s support for radicals and Islamic extremists.
On a reporting trip to the Gulf a few weeks later, I searched for answers on what had happened and why. Perplexed local diplomats were doing the same. The accepted wisdom was that it was a power play by MbZ and MbS, the up-and-coming personalities of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the lead emirate of the UAE, and Mohammed bin Salman, who became the Saudi crown prince in June 2017 after forcing the abdication of his predecessor. Irritated by their once-irrelevant Qatari neighbor, now striding the region and even the world flush with natural gas revenues, they wanted to put it in its place.
A land invasion apparently was contemplated but blocked by Washington. Bahrain, which only a few weeks earlier had taken its begging bowl to Doha seeking Qatari financial support, was given less than 24 hours to make up its mind whether to join the blockade. A list of 13 demands was viewed almost incredulously because its No. 1 was the expulsion of members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from Qatar. An Iran-watching diplomat told me: “There aren’t any.”
The agreement to end the rift, as currently reported, is threefold: the end of the blocking of air, land and sea routes; Qatar will stop legal actions against its neighbors, notably over limitations on air transit; and both sides will stop media campaigns against the other. Of these, the last is possibly the most challenging. Definitions of press freedom and fair comment are works in progress in the Gulf.
This is a moving story and answers to “What does it all mean?” questions will need to wait, literally, until the desert dust settles. The role of MbS’s father, Saudi Arabia’s ailing King Salman, will be worth watching. Notionally, he is chairing the event, but he didn’t attend the main session or the photo of the summit lineup. MbS is clearly the driving force in the diplomatic breakthrough, perhaps realizing that the rift was impacting his vision to modernize the kingdom.
MbZ is not going to the summit, but he doesn’t usually go anyway. Protocol-wise, given the ill-health of his elder half-brother and UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE representative will be the prime minister, Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. This time, though, some might read more into MbZ’s absence.
Another no-show will be King Hamad of Bahrain, but his son Crown Prince Salman is there. The Omani ruler, Sultan Haitham, also has sent a stand-in, but he may be emulating his predecessor Sultan Qaboos, who traditionally never turned up. President Sisi of Egypt was invited as a guest but will be represented by his foreign minister, so still suggesting a buy-in to the agreement.
The absence of the rift won’t mean Gulf unity but it should be welcomed by the incoming Biden administration, which will try to fashion a new Iran policy. But the Iran nuclear issue won’t be any easier to solve. The sharp-eyed will have noticed that Saudi Arabia chose to have this summit at Al-Ula, an up-and-coming tourist attraction famous for its rocky outcrops and Nabatean carvings. It is also the site of a Chinese-built uranium processing facility, an apparent Saudi effort to build an infrastructure that would be necessary if it wanted to match Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.