Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Saudi Arabia announced Monday that it would lift its land and sea blockade against Qatar, and that Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (the UAE) would allow Qatari aircraft to fly through their air space again.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced their boycott on the small peninsula on June 5, 2017.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo has pushed for an end to the isolation of Qatar because it has destroyed the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of six Sunni Gulf oil monarchies formed in 1982 to block Iran. The Trump administration has attempted to craft an alliance of Israel and the GCC states against Iran.
With the diplomatic efforts of Jared Kushner, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel last summer. This step has made it easier for Israeli submarines to ply the oil Gulf, and opened the way for closer Israeli technological and presumably signals-intelligence cooperation with Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates — all with an eye to deterring Iran.
Qatar has been paying Iran $122 million a year for use of its air space, since Qatar Airways could not fly north over Bahrain or west over Saudi Arabia. Having to fly east before turning for Europe has also hurt Qatar Airways profits. Qatar also imported food from Iran during the first year of the blockade. The dependence of Doha on Iran meant that the Gulf Cooperation Council could not take a united hard line against the ayatollahs in Iran.
Likewise, even if it wanted to, Qatar was not in a position to normalize relations with Israel (though it has correct relations with that country anyway).
Although Jared Kushner is claiming credit for the breakthrough, behind the scenes the Saudis are saying that they took the step because they did not want the Qatar situation to be ongoing as the Biden administration took power. Barak Ravid reports at Axios that the Saudis wanted to “clean the table” in advance of Biden’s inauguration.
Biden and his prospective team have been deeply critical of Saudi Arabia over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, over the kingdom’s horrible human rights record domestically, and over the war that Riyadh is pursuing against Yemen, which has produced the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
King Salman seems intent on mollifying the Biden team, and ending the boycott of Qatar is a relatively painless step. Now, when Biden officials meet with the Qatari ambassador, they won’t hear a litany of complaints against the Saudis. It is a relatively small thing, but Saudi Arabia is in big trouble with Washington and the king may think any little bit will help.
King Salman personally sent a letter of invitation to Sheikh Tamim of Qatar to attend Tuesday’s summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It will be the first time in 3 years that the emir has attended.
This thaw may also suggest a diminution of the power of crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who helped engineer the blockade in the first place. Likewise, it suggests that Saudi Arabia is now overruling the United Arab Emirates, where crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed had been even more committed to isolating Qatar than Bin Salman.
The attack on Qatar was the last battle of the Arab Spring. In 2011-13, the youth revolts in the Arab world were supported by Qatar, and as the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood rose to prominence (taking the presidency in Egypt in 2012), Qatar, long a backer of the Brotherhood, provided them aid.
Saudi Arabia and especially Bin Zayed deeply oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing the fundamentalist, populist party as inherently revolutionary and republican with a small ‘r,’ i.e., they are like the Baptists in the southern colonies who joined George Washington to fight the British crown. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have given billions to the military junta of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt to root out the Brotherhood, after al-Sisi overthrew its elected government in 2013. The UAE has also backed military strong man Khalifa Hiftar in Libya against the more fundamentalist government in Tripoli.
Since Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan is also a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, there has been a cold war for the past nearly a decade between the UAE-Saudi Arabia axis, which supports enlightened secular dictatorship as the model for the region, and the Turkey-Qatar entente, which supports a democratic sort of government in which Muslim fundamentalists can compete for power, just as the Christian Democrats compete for seats in the German parliament. The Middle East is basically Frederick the Great versus the Berlin Republic.
Since the Iranian government is basically the Shiite version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the UAE and Saudi Arabia want to isolate and roll it back, too. It isn’t part of the Turkey-Qatar entente, but they are considered “soft” on Iran by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
One of the Quartet’s demands was the shuttering of the Al Jazeera satellite news channel, which is funded by the Qatari government but has substantial editorial independence. Al Jazeera is pro-democracy and is willing to interview Muslim Brotherhood figures and not simply demonize them. This editorial line, of presenting “all sides of a story,” drives the UAE and Saudi Arabia crazy.
One of the sad things that has happened to Arab culture in the past decade is that the Saudis and the UAE have bought up many the newspapers/ news sites in the region, and the junta in Egypt has ramped up censorship, so that independent news reporting is very rare. Al Jazeera is thus one of the last independent voices, and the 2017 boycott was intended in part to close it down so as to give the Saudis and UAE full spectrum dominance in the region’s media.
The agreement to end the blockade on Qatar will not heal the rift entirely. The Gulf Cooperation Council was in part a security pact. How can the Qataris ever trust the Saudis and the UAE to have their backs? Some proposed a unified electrical grid throughout the Arab littoral of the Gulf. But any such system would open Qatar to being left in the dark if the campaign was renewed. That is, cooperation and vulnerability go together, and Qatar can’t cooperate too closely with people that tried once to destroy it lest it become highly vulnerable.
I also don’t expect Qatar’s correct relations with Iran to change, whatever hopes Mr. Kushner may have in that regard.
The boycott was imposed in June, 2017, with the active encouragement of Donald Trump. Only in the fall of 2017 did Trump back off and begin making up with Qatar. The blockading Quartet countries nevertheless kept the pressure on, preventing Qatar from importing food through Saudi Arabia or from using their air space. They also plotted to destabilize the Qatari currency and trumped up charges against the country of backing terrorism (which is ridiculous).
Back in 2017, the blockading Quartet may have plotted the overthrow and death of the reigning Emir, Sheikh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani. Ironically, Kushner may have been in on the plot. The Turkish parliament halted any such plans by voting to send hundreds of Troops to Qatar as a signal that the powerful Turkish military would not put up with such a regime change.
Likewise, the US secretary of defense, James Mattis, and the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, worked behind the scenes to protect Qatar. The small state hosts the al-Udeid US Air Force Base, with some 12,000 military personnel, from which US sorties are flown against ISIL in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Qatar is also a major natural gas exporter, in which ExxonMobil, of which Tillerson was the CEO before joining the Trump administration, was well aware and he hoped for an increased share for his old company of this valuable resource.
It should be remembered that Kushner has only partially helped fix what he and Trump broke.
Qatar survived, and has now had a victory of sorts. The major credit likely goes to the incoming Biden administration. We’re seeing signs that Biden’s determination to fix some of the dysfunctions of US Middle East policy is already having an effect, two weeks before he even takes office.