As Donald Trump apparently seeks an end to the Gulf crisis, Joe Biden’s victory in the US Presidential Elections has piled pressure on Saudi Arabia to alter its foreign policy. Will this be enough to finally end the blockade against Qatar?
Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to US President Donald Trump, announced on November 29 a trip to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in a final bid to end the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis during the last weeks of Trump’s presidency.
For some observers, this raises hopes that a resolution to the diplomatic crisis could be imminent, and that Joe Biden’s upcoming administration could take further steps to resolve it.
On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia launched a blockade on Qatar and severed diplomatic ties, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain. The self-styled “Anti-Terror Quartet” issued Doha 13 demands, including closing media outlets like Al Jazeera, ending ties with Iran, reducing military cooperation with Turkey, and severing alleged ties to “terrorist groups.”
As Qatar denied these allegations and rejected the blockading countries’ demands, the crisis has continued, despite past suggestions it could wind down.
Trump even vindicated the narratives that drove the crisis, tweeting on June 6: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar…”
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) also forged strong ties with the Trump administration, and the subsequent impunity towards them enabled both leaders to continue the blockade.
Trump has sought several foreign policy “victories” in the Middle East during his final year as president.
Nonetheless, Trump has sought several foreign policy “victories” in the Middle East during his final year as president. Resolving the Gulf crisis “defined by Israeli interests” was one of them, following the so-called “Deal of the Century” between Israel and Palestine in January 2020, along with brokering the normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain this summer.
On September 14, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “To keep our focus on this work and to close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it’s past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift.” His ambitious pronouncement was refuted as Trump’s stance enabled tensions to erupt within the Gulf and bolstered the blockading countries.
Trump’s administration approached the Gulf crisis with the wrong intentions, as it focused on uniting the GCC countries with Israel to form a unified front against Iran, rather than addressing the deep-seeded divisions that caused the crisis to erupt.
Biden on the other hand criticized MbS throughout his presidential campaign, promising to “reassess” Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in September 2018, and the Saudi-led war in Yemen which the US has supported.
Though Biden has yet to express an unequivocal desire to end the blockade against Qatar, his pressure on MbS would force the Crown Prince to alter Riyadh’s foreign policy elsewhere in the region. Easing the blockade would be an indirect consequence of this.
There have been recent suggestions that MbS seeks to reduce tensions with Qatar to appease Biden, and he now appears more conciliatory towards Doha.
After all, there have been recent suggestions that MbS seeks to reduce tensions with Qatar to appease Biden, and he now appears more conciliatory towards Doha. Referring to MbS’ apparent receptivity towards Qatar, Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the royal court, said “this is a gift for Biden,” reported the Financial Times.
Shihabi added that MbS “feels that he is in the line of fire” following Biden’s victory, and wants to rebuild ties with Qatar as a “signal he is willing and ready to take steps.” Indeed, on December 2, Doha News reported that a breakthrough was impending and that it was “understood that Saudi Arabia will open its air space for Qatar Airways flights, and there are some reports that Riyadh may even open its land border.”
Regarding the other blockading countries, Biden also called out Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In July, he tweeted there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator.” Together with his condemnation of MbS, this apparent enmity of autocrats raises hopes that Biden will deliver a more sensible and human rights-driven policy towards such regional disputes.
Even as Biden pressures MbS and Sisi, he has shown less opposition towards the UAE’s role, and this could prevent an end to the blockade. Abu Dhabi has established good favor with the Democrats, particularly after its normalization with Israel.
On the other hand, though Abu Dhabi may feel less vulnerable than Riyadh and Cairo under a Biden presidency, and therefore less willing to re-establish ties with Doha, MbZ would still be less confident in carrying out bellicose moves than he was under Trump. For now, at least, Abu Dhabi would at most refrain from intensifying the blockade, rather than ending it.
The UAE may also want to avoid reputational repercussions from the blockade, given its desires to uphold a positive international image. The cost to its image may grow, particularly after Qatar attempted to sue the blockading countries in July for the closure of their airspaces and subsequent financial damages to the Doha-based airline Qatar Airways. Should such negative coverage increase, this could force Abu Dhabi to finally make reluctant concessions.
The GCC crisis will inevitably improve before it worsens. Although, it is unlikely that the pre-crisis status quo will return soon.
The GCC crisis will therefore inevitably improve before it worsens. Although, it is unlikely that the pre-crisis status quo will return soon. After the blockade, Qatar moved closer to Iran and Turkey, establishing various international supply channels and strengthening its independence. Learning from its past experience, it would naturally be risky for Doha to resume a high level of imports from Riyadh.
In fact, Qatar has continued deepening its ties with Turkey, after Ankara came to Doha’s aid during the blockade. After a meeting with the Qatari Emir at Erdogan’s presidential complex in Ankara on November 26, both countries signed 10 Memorandums of Understanding (MoU). They included the Qatar Investment Authority purchasing a 10 percent stake in Turkey’s stock exchange – Borsa Istanbul AS — along with Istinye Park, a luxury shopping mall. In addition, the transfer of the Middle East Antalya Port Operators from Turkey’s Global Ports to Qatar’s Terminals W.L.L was agreed upon.
For now, various geopolitical tensions still linger. Egypt accused Qatar of undermining Libya’s current peace talks, following an agreement on November 13 between Doha and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Qatar agreed to provide support and training to the GNA’s military force. Moreover, the UAE has also shown no indication of scaling back its own policies in Libya and efforts to undermine the GNA by funding ex-General Haftar, among other regional issues.
While Qatar provided support to some post-revolution governments following the 2011 Arab Spring movements, Doha’s foreign policy independence irked Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It also contradicted their regionwide counter-revolutionary efforts to crush the Arab Spring revolutions.
It is therefore too premature to suggest that the Gulf crisis will end, Trump’s departure will remove the impunity from such leaders who were empowered under his auspices and will at least stop regional divisions worsening from current levels.
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