Sunshine Over the Gulf

Main Image Credit Courtesy of Paul/Adobe Stock

The reconciliation between Qatar and its neighbours marks the end of a poorly considered diplomatic campaign and botched US policy. But the scars will endure.

After three and a half years, the dispute within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) appears to be over, almost as suddenly as it began. At the GCC summit on 5 January hosted by Saudi Arabia, Qatar  – blockaded by land and air by its neighbours since June 2017 – was welcomed back into the fold.

The Donald and the Gulf

The role of the US in this process of reconciliation has been interesting to watch, as the Trump administration botched the handling of the crisis from day one. In 2017, it was difficult to discern patterns in the administration’s behaviour but, with hindsight, the White House behaved then in a style which is by now very familiar. At the outset of the crisis Donald Trump’s Twitter account blasted Qatar for supporting terrorism, setting in motion a chain of events that dramatically increased the severity and impact of the dispute. But like so much of Trump’s approach to regional affairs, there was little follow-up, and within a matter of months Trump’s reversals and doublespeak merely ensured the GCC rift would become a long and protracted stalemate.

It was therefore a relief to see Trump’s Middle East point man, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, sitting in on the GCC summit. This represented the culmination of months of hard work behind the scenes, and a reaffirmation that at least some officials in the White House had taken responsibility for fixing the mess they had done so much to create.

There is little doubt Kushner has tried to present the reconciliation as another Middle East policy win for the administration, to go alongside the admittedly more impressive achievements with regard to accommodating Israel and its place in the region. But otherwise in this instance there is little to be gained for the outgoing Trump team, and perhaps more to be said for his administration’s efforts  to create regional facts on the ground that will further isolate Iran, just before President-elect Joe Biden’s team seek to re-engage the Islamic Republic on controlling its nuclear programme.

Diplomacy as a Cul-De-Sac

Although the end to the blockade was sudden, the moment was bound to come at some point. This is because the initial escalation by the so-called quartet of blockading states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt – was so poorly handled and executed that it left no room for compromise or negotiation. The outcome was that Qatar had no choice but to totally capitulate to the quartet’s demands, or stand firm by defying all conditions. Crucially, the blockading states did not fully understand that Doha had many cards on its side. Qatar’s enormous wealth and gas reserves, its strong relationships with Western countries, and the support of Turkey and Iran more or less guaranteed that after the initial disruption, Qatar was secure and could maintain a modicum of prosperity.

And so, once Qatar inevitably refused to concede to its neighbours’ demands, there were only really two options left open to the Saudis and their allies: either to use military force to effect a ‘regime change’; or accept a diplomatic defeat and move on. Given that the first option was more or less unthinkable, this meant that the blockade was bound to fail, which was clear from its second week.

Accordingly, the longer the dispute dragged on, the stronger Qatar’s position became, and the weaker and more disorganised the blockading quartet seemed. The fact that, as part of the current settlement, Qatar has not acceded to any of the 13 points demanded of it is, perhaps, a fitting end to a blockade policy that was ill conceived, poorly prepared and utterly self-defeating.

The Gulf Today

It is a tad trite to talk about winners and losers at this point; after so much disruption to the natural ebb and flow of life in the Gulf there are no winners, for so much has been lost along the way. Nevertheless, it is a good thing that Qatar is reintegrated with its neighbours. The Gulf region’s economies have been battered by consistently low oil prices, the coronavirus pandemic and regional instability. Qatar’s disposable income is diminished but still substantial, and will be a welcome shot in the arm for Dubai, and for Saudi Arabia, which is in the midst of huge structural and social changes that require an invigorated private sector. With the 2022 World Cup looming on the horizon, the Saudis and Emiratis will be sure to try and cash in on the inevitable spoils, and world attention that comes to their region.

So, will everything go back to normal? If public imagery is anything to go by then perhaps things will adjust fairly quickly. A happy Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatari Emir Tamim Al Thani were pictured walking together in the (admittedly stunning) ruins of Al Ula, and taking a desert drive in a sports car. True to form, a myriad of slavishly loyal Gulf media outlets, the same outlets who had long derided and insulted each other, were only too happy to present the situation as a new dawn of sunshine and rainbows.

It is not, of course. Too much has been said over the past three years for things to return to normal. And while the Gulf’s leaders may forgive outwardly, they will not forget, and nor will their respective populations.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Michael Stephens

Associate Fellow

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