June 5 marks four years since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar and five months after the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Al-Ula. , in Saudi Arabia, which marked the end of the deepest. crack in the history of the organization. The way the 43-month blockade began and the way it ended reflects significant broader changes in regional and international perspectives since 2017.
It is therefore important to examine what lessons have been learned from the last four years, whether the agreement signed in Al-Ula is lasting and how the reconciliation process unfolds.
From start to finish, the blockade of Qatar was a textbook study of a regional crisis at the time of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the weakening of the rules-based international order. What was a power game designed to politically and economically isolate Qatar began with the piracy of the Qatar News Agency and the planting of fake news that purported to report incendiary comments from Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. This turned the chain of events that followed a real-world manifestation of a crisis rooted in the notion of “alternative facts,” a term coined by then-senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway in January 2017.
The blockade also followed a pattern of disclosure to the incoming Trump administration by Emirati and Saudi officials that began with a visit by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to New York to meet with members of the transition team in December 2016. This broadcast culminated in Trump making his first presidential trip abroad to Riyadh in May 2017. This period included a series of interactions that seemed to attempt to appeal in the transactional and unconventional style of decision-making in the White House by creating and amplifying a campaign of influence that portrays Qatar as negative. actor in regional affairs.
This approach seemed to bear fruit when Trump surprised observers, including, according to all accounts, his secretaries of state and defense, initially supporting the blockade and seeming to relate the decision to move against Qatar to the talks he had held. in Riyadh two weeks earlier. Trump’s statement threatened the backbone of Qatar’s security and defense partnerships with the United States and encouraged him to block capital that Trump’s transactional approach would lead him to take sides in the dispute.
In retrospect, the assumption that the rest of the U.S. government would continue to side with the White House was wrong, and it was the retreat of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. military leaders on which eventually led Trump to change his stance.
It is unclear why officials in the blocking states, including some who were well-versed in American politics, would have thought otherwise. One possibility is that the Trump administration, which took office loudly proclaiming its intention to do things its way, regardless of the restriction of rules and established procedure, simply encouraged friends and opponents to believing it meant what he was saying.
By September 2017, the blockade had been set in a tenure pattern that lasted the rest of Trump’s turbulent presidency. A visit to the White House that month by Emir Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah of Kuwait highlighted the Emir Sabah’s comment that “the important thing is that we have stopped military action,” but attempts mediation in Kuwait and the United States proved difficult to break deadlock. On at least two occasions, in December 2019 and July 2020, hopes of a breakthrough in Saudi-Qatari relations were dashed, illustrating the difficulty of resolving a dispute involving five parties instead of just two.
What led to a breakthrough in Al-Ula in January 2021 was a series of developments, both regional and international, in 2019 and 2020. While, for Qatar, it was Trump’s tweets in support of the blockade in June 2017 those who (temporarily) led questioned the reliability of the US partnership, for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi its “moment of truth” occurred between May and September 2019. The failure of the Trump administration in responding to the series of attacks on maritime and energy targets in and around Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates culminated in Trump making a public distinction between US and Saudi interests after the missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities.
The 2019 attacks, linked to Iran, punctuated the regional assertiveness of the formulation of Saudi and Emirati policies, as well as the assumption, especially when it came to anything to do with Iran, that its interests and the interests of the United States were indeed the same. Emirati and Saudi leaders began heading to Iran, directly and indirectly, to explore ways to reduce tensions, while Qatar’s leadership responded to Abqaiq’s attack in September 2019 by reaffirming the principle of collective security of the CCG. If nothing else, the 2019 attacks showed that, for all differences of approach, Doha was not the main threat, not even a significant one, to the security and regional stability that had been distinguished in 2017. .
A year later, Trump’s failure to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election meant that Gulf leaders faced the prospect of a Biden administration taking office in January 2021. During the campaign, Biden and other members of his team had expressed skepticism about the region, and above all reliability of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a responsible partner. So it came as no surprise that Trump’s transition to Biden also saw the end of a blockade that would probably never have happened under any other president and that Saudi officials placed Mohammed bin Salman at the head of the reconciliation summit, portraying -he as a regional statesman and drawing a line for the last four years.
Although the precise details of the Al-Ula agreement have not been disclosed, there is reason for cautious optimism that the reconciliation process is more lengthy than after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement. , which ended a diplomatic confrontation in 2014 and did not prevent further rupture in 2017. It should be noted that follow-up meetings have taken place between Qatar and the Emirates, as well as delegations from Qatar and Egypt, and there have been successive conversation wheels to address troubling issues.
This suggests that the Al-Ula Accord, unlike the Riyadh Agreement, is not a one-time document, but rather part of a deeper process of re-involvement along specific bilateral avenues. which could allow the parties to go deeper than a “generic” “size for all” agreement would allow. It also indicates that it is recognized that issues can be broken and not framed as an ultimatum to “take it or leave it,” as is the case with the so-called 13 demands of the blocking states in June 2017 that do not they were the basis for a fruitful negotiation.
There also seems to be a recognition of the flexibility that relations between Qatar and the four blocking states will not proceed at the same speed or depth. There are already indications that ties have improved faster and farther with Saudi Arabia and (to a lesser extent) with Egypt, which probably reflects the fact that much of the original animosity behind the blockade did not originate in Riyadh or in Cairo. Along with other GCC leaders, Qatar leadership expressed support for the Crown Prince in February following the publication of CIA findings related to the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and reaffirmed the importance of a stable Saudi Arabia for regional security in the Gulf. Emir Tamim visited Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on May 10 and ties at all levels appear to have been fully restored.
The blockade of Qatar was the longest fracture in the history of the GCC, which marked its 40th anniversary on May 25 and, unlike previous periods of tension, its effect was not limited to the level of leaders and elites who took politics, but encompassed entire nations. The damage done to the social fabric of the “Gulf House” may take longer to repair and memories of bitterness and resentment on the media and social media platforms could linger. For the time being and in the foreseeable future, however, it is likely that all parties to the blockade will establish a modus vivendi at least until the regional or international context changes again.