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Saudi Arabia and Qatar move to end crisis ahead of Biden presidency

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan al-Saud speaks to the media on February 21, 2020 in Berlin, Germany.

Thomas Trutschel | Photothek | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Several news outlets have hailed what has been described as a breakthrough in the 3½-year-old Gulf crisis as Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear committed to reach a final agreement to solve their impasse. 

Kuwaiti officials issued a statement last week saying that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have “confirmed their commitment” to reaching a solution and protecting “Gulf solidarity.” Kuwait has played a mediating role between the states involved in the dispute ever since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a diplomatic and political blockade on Qatar in mid-2017, accusing it of supporting Islamic extremism and being too close with their regional foe, Iran. The Qataris rejected the allegations. 

But for some Gulf watchers, the development is not a massive breakthrough but a moderate sign of progress some time in the making, with a long way still to go. And its timing is important — just weeks before a Joe Biden administration takes the helm in the U.S.

“This is not a breakthrough. It’s a step in the right direction,” Andreas Krieg, a longtime Gulf analyst who has advised the Qatari government, told CNBC over the phone. “We’ve been here before.”

“Now that Biden is coming in, there is more pressure on Saudis to show goodwill and show that they are a constructive partner in the Middle East,” he said. 

Washington has consistently urged the estranged parties to end the crisis as it’s hampered U.S. interests in the region, empowered Iran and isolated Qatar which hosts Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military base in the Gulf.  

Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, meets with U.S. President’s senior adviser Jared Kushner in Doha, Qatar, December 2, 2020.

Qatar News Agency | Reuters

Ian Bremmer, founder of political consultancy Eurasia Group and a frequent consultant to Gulf governments, also described the Saudi rapprochement as a response to the Biden win, as well as to the mounting standoff with Iran. 

The Donald Trump administration has a particularly warm relationship with Saudi Arabia, far more so than the previous administration under Barack Obama. Biden is expected to make the Gulf countries less of a priority and has voiced criticism of the oil-rich Saudi kingdom, promising during a political debate to treat Saudi Arabia as “the pariah that they are.” 

Faced with this potential reality, Krieg said, “I think there is a concession there that for the Saudis is something they can’t reject because they are under such immense pressure.”

“The Saudis are being pragmatic here in the same way that the Qataris are pragmatic … There is an understanding that a united Gulf front still serves everyone more than spending millions of dollars in trying to undermine each other’s positions.”

Plenty of sticking points

Several attempts to reach a workable solution have failed, including a pre-blockade agreement in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain initially broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar only to restore them within a few weeks. The dispute rested on Qatar’s support for Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood, and its flagship news outlet, Al Jazeera, voicing support for political Islam and criticism of other Gulf monarchies, all things that the other GCC states saw as grave threats. 

The 2017 blockade was in part a result of what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi said were unfulfilled promises by Qatar to meet their prior demands, plus new demands concerning Iran, which ironically has become much closer to Qatar since its isolation by the blockade.  

There are still sticking points for the Saudis, says Eurasia Group’s Bremmer. “Riyadh still wants a Qatar agreement around Al Jazeera and a few other demands. Can’t have a breakthrough without that.”

Will everyone get on board?

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes part in a meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates September 19, 2019.

Mandel Ngan | Reuters

Despite warm words from the Saudis — even describing the Qataris as “brothers,” something unheard of since 2017 — a real end to the crisis is still a fair way away, not least because it would need all the involved states involved to be on board. Amid silence from the UAE, which many regional experts name as the lead instigator behind the blockade, a comprehensive solution remains elusive. 

“The train of Gulf reconciliation will not move one millimeter without knowledge, without consent, and without the prior blessing of the UAE,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scholar, wrote Sunday on Twitter. There has so far been no official statement from Abu Dhabi, whose anti-Arab Spring and anti-Islamist worldview is diametrically opposed to that of Doha. 

“The gaps between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have always been easier than those which existed between Qatar and UAE,” said Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “With the added pressure of poor economic performance and concerted U.S. pressure this has brought the sides closer. But the gaps are still larger and the trust is low. This will take some time.”  

But to Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst who is close to the kingdom’s royal court, an agreement between the Saudis and Qataris is still “going to happen.” 

“What is left is packaging more than substance. Of course time will only tell if the Qataris abide by their agreement since Saudi feels that they did not abide by their previous agreements, but still it’s a big move,” he told CNBC. 

Whether all the Gulf states get on board may determine whether a lasting solution is achieved. 

“UAE refusing to concede would make them look ridiculously bad,” Krieg said. “It’s quite feasible that the Saudis and Qataris reconcile on their own.”

The UAE’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.