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ConflictsMiddle East

Gulf leaders sign agreement to end Qatar blockade

January 4, 2021

The Saudi crown prince embraced the emir of Qatar before signing a deal to end Saudi Arabia's yearslong boycott of its smaller neighbor.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Qatar's ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Qatar's ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani Image: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/REUTERS

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Tuesday that the Gulf states had signed an agreement on regional "solidarity and stability" at a summit aimed at resolving a three-year embargo against Qatar.

"These efforts helped us reach the agreement of the Al-Ula statement ... where we affirm our Gulf, Arab and Islamic solidarity and stability," he said, thanking the United States and Kuwait for mediating.

The US has been pressuring Doha and Riyadh to reconcile, fearing that Iran might take advantage of the feud.

The de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia also pointed to Iran in his Tuesday speech.

"There is a desperate need today to unite our efforts to promote our region and to confront challenges that surround us, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime's nuclear and ballistic missile program and its plans for sabotage and destruction," said Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Qatar's ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, also attended the Gulf leaders' summit in the Saudi desert city of Al-Ula on Tuesday. The emir and the Saudi crown prince publicly embraced before signing off on a rapprochement deal.

The remaining members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Kuwait, Bahrein, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates — also signed the document. The details of the deal were not immediately released to the public.

Later in the day, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan described it as "the turning of the page on all points of difference and a full return of diplomatic relations" indicating that ties would be restored to the pre-embargo levels.

What was the row about?

Tensions between the two neighbors spilt into the open in mid-2017, when Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic, trade, and travel ties with Qatar. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt also joined the blockade. The four countries accused Doha of backing radical Islamist movements and cozying up to Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran.

The bloc also set out 13 demands for Qatar, including closing the Al Jazeera news network and downgrading links with Iran. Another request was that Qatar close a Turkish military base on its territory.

Doha has flatly denied the requests, triggering the standoff. Qatar's leaders had said the boycott aimed to undermine the country's national sovereignty.

Qatar is a small but strategically crucial country located on a peninsula bordering the Persian Gulf. It is the home to the largest US military base in the region. The rich nation has some 2.3 million inhabitants, the overwhelming majority of whom are expats, and shares its only land border with the much larger Saudi Arabia.

A map of Qatar with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia

Closing the rift

Kuwait has been acting as a mediator between the two sides. In December 2020, Foreign Minister Al Sabah signaled progress by saying that "all sides expressed their keenness for Gulf and Arab unity and stability" while discussing the issue.

At the time, Qatar said that any solution should be based on mutual respect.

"No country is in a position to impose any demands on another country ... Each country should decide its foreign policy," said Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

It was not immediately clear if Qatar accepted any of the demands previously listed by Riyadh and its backers in order to achieve the compromise announced on Monday. So far, Qatar did not publicly move on any of the issues.

However, a senior White House official told the Reuters news agency on Monday that Qatar will suspend lawsuits related to blockade under the new deal.

Some analysts believe the boycott actually pushed Qatar closer to Iran and Turkey, as the small country was forced to import goods from other neighbors and pay Iran for flyover rights.

Victory for Jared Kushner?

White House adviser Jared Kushner was also at the summit at Al-Ula, after reportedly helping to negotiate the accord. 

On Monday, the White House official said Kushner, who is the son-in-law of the outgoing US President Donald Trump, was allegedly flying to Saudi Arabia to attend the signing ceremony.

"It's just a massive breakthrough," the official told Reuters. "It will lead to more stability in the region."

Kushner is also said to have played an important  key role in a series of normalization deals between Israel and several Arab states in 2020. The Middle East diplomatic offensive could be seen as Washington's push to form a united front against Iran in the Gulf region.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia might be pressured to act constructively as US President-elect Joe Biden is set to take power and reassess the US foreign policy later this month.

"Biden views Mohammed bin Salman as a destabilizing force in the region and Saudi Arabia is desperate to shed this negative image," Middle East expert Samuel Ramani told the DPA news agency. "Ending the blockade against Qatar suggests that Saudi Arabia is interested in contributing to regional stability."

Qatar 'ready for dialogue'

dj/nm (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)