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End of the Saudi – Qatar embargo

Saudi Arabia has decided to reopen its land, air and sea borders with Qatar, ending more than three years of isolation of the latter from the Persian Gulf states. The decision was announced by Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s foreign minister. Kuwait and the United States played an active role in mediating to resolve the dispute between the Persian Gulf states. The first consequence of this agreement took place on 5 January. In fact, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, took part in the meeting between the Gulf states held near Al Ula, in Saudi Arabia (north-west area), to be precise the summit between the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait). The countries in question then signed an agreement “of solidarity and stability”, which content is not yet known.

In the absence of details on the agreement, the only certainty is that the deal ends the embargo that Saudi Arabia and three allied countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt (Sunni-majority Arab states and allies with the United States) – had imposed on Qatar (also Sunni-majority) on 5 June 2017.

These countries accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and Islamist groups in the region, and of being too close to Iran, a country with an overwhelming Shia majority and an enemy of Saudi Arabia.

Doha had denied the accusations of fomenting instability in the region, but the break with its allies had also been caused by relations, considered too cordial, both with above-mentioned Iran and with Turkey, both major rivals of Riyadh in controlling the Middle East.

The embargo on Qatar had, however, begun unofficially before 2017.

In fact, one of the first signs of the new balance in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had promoted it in response to the activism of Qatar in the phase of the so-called Arab Springs and in subsequent years.

The target was Doha’s support for Islamists, which was particularly unwelcome in Egypt, where current President Abdel Fatah al Sisi is in power thanks to a coup d’état that pushed aside the Muslim Brotherhood government that emerged victorious in the post-2011 elections.

So, after three years of tug-of-war, the dispute that has split the Gulf countries seems to have reached a conclusion.

The signing of the agreement was also attended by Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, who is very close to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

The importance of Washington’s mediation has been underlined by the host himself, Mohammed bin Salman, who emphasized the “efforts” of Kuwait, the mediating country, and the US. Mohammed bin Salman then said that the United States “helped us to obtain an agreement where we affirm the solidarity and stability of the Gulf and the Arab and Muslim countries”.

It is necessary at this point, however, to go back to 2017.

Only a few months after taking office, Donald Trump took his big step in the Middle East. Thanks in part to the dense web of diplomatic relations sewn by his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, Trump “landed” in Riyadh.

He was welcomed with fanfare by Mohammed bin Salman.

The two formed an all-encompassing alliance: economic, future large orders, but above all, they signed a series of arms supply contracts worth over 100 billion dollars.

The whole thing pivoted around a major axis: the desire to isolate Iran, crush its military initiatives in the region, especially in Yemen and Syria, and bring its economy to its knees. And, although the objective was not official, to try to overthrow the regime.

Thanks therefore to the iron alliance with the United States and the many common interests, an air, land and naval embargo were announced a few days after Trump’s visit.

The aim? To put an end, once and for all, to the “dangerous” activities of Qatar, a major supporter of the Islamic Movement of the Muslim Brotherhood that was causing such fear in Riyadh, Dubai and Cairo. As I explained earlier, punishing it for alleged links with international terrorism. In any case, try to crush his relations with the great enemy of the Sunni Arab world: Iran.

And so the anti-Iran alliance, in which Riyadh, Dubai, Cairo and tiny Bahrain, (a country with a Shiite majority but governed by a Sunni monarchy) participated, was born and has perpetrated over the years despite the irritation of the United States, which did not want to lose a precious and rich Arab ally such as Qatar and throw it into the hands of Iran.

What were the key points that would have granted the end of the embargo right away?

The non-negotiable points dictated to Doha were practically unacceptable from the start: the interruption of relations with Iran, the end of support for Islamists and the closure of the pan-Arab TV channel Al Jazeera. For these reasons, the tug-of-war continued.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia did not want to let go in any way, despite the White House’s insistence that a dialogue had to be initiated. On the other hand, however necessary, the alliance between Washington and Riyadh, forged in 1945 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the sovereign Ibn Saud (oil in exchange for American protection) has always been fragile, almost ambiguous. Put to the hardest test by the attacks on the Twin Towers.

What has changed?

In the end, pragmatism prevailed.

It is certainly no coincidence that the announcement of the normalization of relations with Qatar came on the eve of the summit between the Arab leaders of the Gulf, which was held in Saudi Arabia.

To be fair, there are still two countries that are in doubt, one is Egypt, which will adhere to the end of the embargo only after a number of points have been resolved. The other country is the United Arab Emirates, which has not yet officially withdrawn its reservations but should be in favour.

What can be said for certain is that it is a great step forward in an area of the world that is always particularly complex, articulated and dangerous. This, it should be stressed, just a few days before the inauguration of the new and first Joe Biden presidency

A man who has always viewed the new geopolitics in the Middle East with diffidence.

The role of Washington is therefore crucial, as it almost always is. The United States had a very strong interest in this reconciliation in order to allow tensions to persist that went against the objective of isolating Iran as much as possible.

A context that Mohamed bin Salman certainly did not hide, affirming during the summit the objective of “remaining united in the face of challenges”, in particular “with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme, its ballistic missile programme and its sabotage projects”.

Returning to pragmatism, who won at the end of this embargo? Doha or Riyadh?

If there has to be a winner, it is certainly not Saudi Arabia of the powerful Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Nor is it the United Arab Emirates. Neither is the Egypt of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Even less so is Bahrain.

The news of Saudi Arabia’s reopening of its air, sea and land borders with Qatar put an end to a three and a half year embargo that never achieved the desired results.

In fact, the only country to emerge ‘victorious’ from this situation appears to be Qatar.

The small but very rich emirate, a country which, together with Saudi Arabia, professes one of the most rigid forms of Sunni Islam, Wahabism, has never given in.

Indeed, it held out for a long time and probably would have held out for a long time yet.

Perhaps this is why the Gulf monarchies, united in decreeing the embargo on 5 June 2017, preferred to try to resolve diplomatic hostilities.

It could have been much worse for the emirate of Qatar, a small peninsula facing Iran, divided by a sea that holds the world’s largest natural gas field.

The country in question, led by the young Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who succeeded his father in 2013 at the age of just 33, is truly rich. It is one of the countries with the highest GDP per capita in the world but, apart from crude oil and gas exports, it imports almost all the goods it consumes. It could therefore risk running out of food and almost any kind of consumer good.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an expression used a lot in the Middle East and so Erdogan’s Turkey, the great rival of the Emirates, and with very difficult relations with Riyadh, over the years has helped Doha a lot, with which it shares the open support to the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, sending ships loaded with foodstuffs, but also military equipment.

Iran has not been idle either. And so it has further tightened ties with the small emirate, intensifying flights and trade.

In other words, the embargo had achieved the opposite results.

By, Michele Brunori

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