When Qatar's neighbors suddenly cut ties and closed borders with the Gulf state, Doha was caught out. Opportunities to cooperate since have been lost when sorely needed. But a window to mend the rift may be opening.
Three full years after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt abruptly boycotted the small neighboring Gulf state of Qatar, the diplomatic crisis continues to stymy regional cooperation without a clear end in sight.
Overnight on June 5, 2017, the anti-Qatar bloc suspended trade, closed down diplomatic channels and blocked Qatari land, sea, and air routes through the crowded Gulf region. The group accused Doha of supporting terrorism through its backing for the political Islamist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The coalition told Doha it would have to comply with 13 demands if it wanted the restrictions lifted.
Among them, ties with the Muslim Brotherhood would have to be cut. Saudi Arabia and its partners — particularly Egypt — regard the social revolutionary movement as a terrorist organization and a threat to their authoritarian modes of rule.
Qatar's state-funded media company Al Jazeera would have to be closed, a channel that widely covered the 2011 popular uprisings that toppled dictators across the region.
Doha would also have to reduce diplomatic relations and end military and intelligence cooperation with Iran.
In response, Qatar denied any link to terrorism and upped its reliance on Iran and Turkey. Both countries increased exports to the isolated peninsula while Tehran allowed Qatar access through Iranian airspace.
Saudi crown prince and a new political style
The sudden move coincided with the appointment that same month of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman — colloquially known as MbS — who was keen to inscribe his own political signature on his rule.
"MbS had always found his country's foreign policy until that point to be lacking determination," Daniel Gerlach, editor of the Middle East-focused Zenith magazine, told DW. "He probably never felt that discreet checkbook diplomacy was appropriate. He wanted to demonstrate a more determined stance from then on."
The Crown Prince later honed this forceful political approach in his leadership on the war in Yemen. "In Qatar, MbS isn't pursuing a foreign policy as such, rather it is a domestic and security policy," Gerlach said.
With Yemen and Qatar right on Saudi Arabia's doorstep, "from a Saudi perspective, what happens there affects the Kingdom's internal affairs. That's why Riyadh pays much more attention to developments in these countries than in other states," he said.
After more than two years of the boycott, officials from Saudi Arabia and Qatar met to start negotiating a resolution to the crisis last October, but talks were tough from the start.
Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, told Reuters in December that there had been "small progress," but his country would "not make any concessions that will affect our sovereignty and interfere with our domestic or foreign policy."
Fresh talks in February involved Qatari requests for freedom of movement across the region, according to anonymous diplomats quoted by Reuters, but Riyadh first wanted Qatar to commit to changes in its foreign policy.
"That's a non-starter for Qatar as there are so many foreign policy disagreements," one diplomat said.
Advantages of cooperation
As energy prices tanked in recent months, a region that relies heavily on oil and gas revenues should have renewed interest in resolving the crisis.
"Worldwide supply chains, particularly for oil; the strategic position between Asia and Africa, which makes it an important stopover; the future hosting of international sports events: All of this calls for close cooperation," Gerlach said.
The new coronavirus pandemic has also heightened the need for coordination. "One can hardly afford rivalries there anymore," added Gerlach.
The row has also hampered the ability of the region's countries to amplify their power as a bloc, according to Ala Al-Hamarneh, a professor at the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz.
"The most serious loss is that of the common political and economic identity," Al-Hamarneh told DW. "There had been discussions about greater integration of the Gulf states. That's now gone. The region's joint organization, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has also lost a great deal of influence. Everyone involved loses."
Chance to mend rift
But upcoming US elections and recent foreign policy shifts may signal a reconfiguration of the rivalry and a possible window for de-escalation.
"For Saudi Arabia, the fact that the next US president will be elected in six months' time is an additional factor," Gerlach said. "Trump had a very friendly policy towards Saudi Arabia, but that could change after November."
Donald Trump has already been applying new pressure on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to lift their bans on Qatari airlines flying over their countries in order to peel Qatar away from relying on Iranian airspace, according to a Wednesday report in The Wall Street Journal.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also partly withdrawn from the foreign policy arena, Gerlach said, with Riyadh delegating some of its interests to the UAE, and Qatar increasingly represented by Turkey.
"This relieves them of the burden of always having to stand in the front row. But the UAE and Turkey also have their own interests, of course," Gerlach said.