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GCC moves to mend Qatar rift

There are strong indications that Saudi Arabia and the UAE intend to normalise relations with Qatar

No announcement has been made about plans to lift the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt on Qatar in June 2017. Quite possibly no formal statement will ever be made. But several recent developments point to a gradual move towards the normalisation of relations. 

The first sign of rapprochement was both sides ending their vicious media propaganda war. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE say their national teams will take part in a Gulf football tournament in the Qatari capital, Doha, later this month. The teams will arrive by plane, thereby effectively removing the air blockade of Qatar. 

In another sign of the changing atmosphere, the Qatari commerce and industry minister took part in a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministers in the Omani capital, Muscat. No fuss was made of his presence and he took his place alongside his counterparts for a photograph after the session, which was published in the region’s media. 

A regrouped GCC will undoubtedly prioritise the strengthening of a military alliance

For some time, the US, with troops stationed in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has urged all parties involved to end the dispute. At a recent Dubai air show, the head of the US Air Force, General David Goldfein, said “the Gulf [Arab] states have to be united” to counter Iran’s delivery of weapons to its allies in the region. 

In the view of Christopher Davidson, Middle East expert at the UK’s Durham University, the quiet change of heart in Saudi Arabia and the UAE stems from regional developments. “The recent tanker attacks and drone strikes on [Saudi] Aramco’s facilities appear to have sharpened minds in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and prompted some sort of effort to resuscitate a more united GCC front,” he says. 

When the Qatar issue is finally put to one side, GCC leaders will theoretically be able to work for greater cooperation in energy as well as other areas. Saudi Arabia may decide to reward Kuwait for its mediation efforts by agreeing to allow oil production to resume from the shared neutral zone. Qatar, which has kept the UAE supplied with natural gas via the Dolphin pipeline throughout the crisis, may offer to discuss plans to supply other gas-hungry GCC neighbours. 

Considerable damage 

However, expectations need to be managed. Many of the issues that prompted the imposition of the blockade remain unchanged. Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network continues to broadcast around the region, and Doha still has friendly relations with Iran. And neither side will forget in a hurry some of the malicious media tirades of the past two years. 

“The damage to the fabric of the GCC has been very considerable, especially given some of the below-the-belt tactics used by tacticians on both sides,” says Davidson. 

A regrouped GCC will undoubtedly prioritise the strengthening of a military alliance, encouraged by collective fears of Iranian regional hegemony and weaker US security guarantees. Nevertheless, “it seems unlikely that the GCC can ever fully return to business as usual, especially when it comes to more civilian forms of economic and cultural cooperation,” Davidson concludes. 

Solid proof of whether the GCC can at least put on a show of unity will come in December when GCC heads of state meet in the UAE for their annual summit. All will be watching to see if the Qatari emir is there to take his seat at the table.

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