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Saudi Arabia agrees to open borders with Qatar in sign of easing rift

Saudi Arabia agrees to open borders with Qatar in sign of easing rift
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Saudi Arabia is set to open airspace, land and sea borders with Qatar, Kuwait’s foreign minister said on Monday, signaling the first steps in ending a three and a half year blockade of the tiny Gulf country.

The remarks were made by Kuwait’s foreign minister, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah, on the Gulf country’s state television, al-Arabiya reported, saying the decision came from a proposal by Kuwait’s ruler.

“Based on (Kuwait's ruler Emir) Sheikh Nawaf's proposal, it was agreed to open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar, starting from this evening," Kuwait’s foreign minister said on state TV.

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Saudi Arabia instituted a full blockade on Qatar in mid-2017 in part over Doha’s close ties with Iran.

The announcement of the open borders comes following a meeting in Qatar between the Qatari and Kuwaiti foreign ministers. A readout of their meeting Monday said that the two men “reviewed bilateral cooperation relations and issues of common concern.”

The easing of the blockade also follows Qatar’s ruling Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s decision to attend a Gulf Arab summit in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Reuters reported. The emir was sent an invitation last week by Saudi King Salman to attend the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting, set to take place on Jan. 5.

The organization of Gulf countries is made up of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

The GCC is set to sign an agreement formally ending the blockade on Tuesday, Axios reported, in a deal helped by Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: What to expect for inauguration Secret Service renting K a month apartment near Ivanka and Jared for bathrooms, office space: report Is the Saudi 'city of the future' overly ambitious? MORE, President TrumpDonald TrumpCIA chief threatened to resign over push to install Trump loyalist as deputy: report Azar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments Justice Dept. argues Trump should get immunity from rape accuser's lawsuit MORE’s son-in-law and senior advisor.

A senior administration official confirmed to The Hill that Kushner is attending the GCC summit in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, along with White House envoy Avi Berkowitz and adviser Brian Hook, who served as the U.S. special representative for Iran at the State Department until November. 

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The easing of tensions is likely an effort to unify Gulf countries in the face of Iran and ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenAzar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments House Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis On The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits MORE, who has committed to reengaging the U.S. with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Iran on Monday announced that it is increasing its uranium enrichment to 20 percent, far above the limits outlined in the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and that President Trump pulled out of in 2018.

The UAE and Bahrain, which opened up diplomatic ties with Israel that were brokered by the Trump administration, have spoken out against Biden’s push to reenter the nuclear deal, saying that they, along with Jerusalem, expect to be included in any discussions related to negotiations with Iran.

Yet Saudi’s efforts to resolve the Gulf rift is also seen as a gesture of good-will toward the incoming Biden administration, closing a chapter on a crisis considered a relic of the Trump era.

“I think that’s something that would very much appeal to the Biden administration,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“I don’t think they want to inherit the Qatar boycott. I think this is something they want on the way out the door when they come in.”

The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was a key goal of Kushner, who had traveled to both countries last month in an effort to resolve the rift.

“I think having a unified GCC creates more stability in the region,” Kushner said in a briefing with reporters on Dec. 10.

The opening of air routes for Qatar over Saudi Arabia will deprive Iran of about $100 million that the Qataris paid to access their air space, said Ibish, of the Arab Gulf States Institute.

“That’s something that the Trump administration really wanted to take away from the Iranian’s, that money, and it makes Qatar more dependent on Iran,” he said, adding that resolving the Gulf crisis contributes to stronger unity in the face of Tehran.

“In a sense you strengthen the alliance against Iran in three ways by resolving this matter. First, you take away money from Iran; secondly you make Qatar more independent of Iran, and thirdly you bring the Gulf countries who are pro-US, you reduce the tensions between them, so you’ve got a stronger circle of wagons,” he said. 

--Updated at 3:41 p.m.