Wide Gulf

Welcome to Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran.

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Now, let’s dive in…

Is the Gulf crisis about to be resolved? Noises from Kuwait, Riyadh and Doha all suggest that, after more than three years of impasse and near misses, we may finally have a breakthrough.

Kuwait foreign minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah said Friday that “fruitful talks” were recently held and all parties “affirmed their commitment to Gulf and Arab solidarity and stability”. The minister also used his brief televised statement to give a shout out to Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and envoy to the Middle East, who visited the region last week as part of the effort to end the dispute.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said he is “somewhat optimistic” that a resolution involving not just the kingdom but also the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt is now possible. “We’ve made significant progress in the last few days,” he said in a conference via video later that day. “We hope that this progress can lead to a final agreement which looks in reach”. His Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman on Twitter called the Kuwaiti statement “an imperative step towards resolving the GCC crisis”.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said via teleconference at the Manama Dialogue that his country is “very hopeful” that the row would be resolved.

It remains unclear what might be the final form of this agreement. News reports in recent days said the two sides remain far apart on many issues, but they may agree on a series of “confidence building measures” such as re-opening the land border and allowing Qatar Airways to use the kingdom’s airspace. In return, Qatar would be expected to “tone down” its Al Jazeera television network coverage.

The outgoing US administration is particularly keen on lifting the air embargo as part of its “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran, which has benefited from Qatar using its airspace to go around the boycotting countries. National security adviser Robert O’Brien said last month that the hoped to see Qatar Airways be able to overfly the four countries “in the next 70 days” before the end of Trump’s presidency.

If, and that’s a big if, this indeed marks the beginning of the end of this crisis, then it is probably worth reflecting on how we got here in the first place.

It all started one early morning in late May 2017. It was the holy month of Ramadan when people around the region would spend their evenings watching soap operas on television after breaking their fast with family and friends at sunset. At some point after midnight, Qatar state news agency website published controversial comments attributed to ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel and Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia immediately carried the comments with flashing “breaking news” banners. Al Jazeera reported that Qatar News Agency was the victim of a cyberattack and the Qatari government denied that Sheikh Tamim made any statement.

The denials coming from Doha did not seem to matter to Al Arabiya or Sky News Arabia. The two channels continued their wall-to-wall coverage of the alleged comments with anti-Qatar pundits in studio and remotely (including many from Egypt) until at least 7am. At first, they simply ignored Qatari denials and insisted on treating the purported comments as fact. Later that day, their anchors and pundits would mention them in passing before dismissing the hacking claims and saying it did not matter if the comments were real or fake because Qatar’s conduct and foreign policy has always been problematic.

On June 5th 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced cutting off air, sea and land links with Qatar and severing all diplomatic relations. They accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, interfering in their domestic affairs, developing ties with Iran and giving refuge to key figures in Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar denied these allegations. The four countries issued a list of sweeping 13 demands and gave Qatar ten days to comply; Qatar said the demands were designed to be rejected.

What followed was a war of wards as the Gulf has never seen before. The amount and level of hostile rhetoric between the two sides were unprecedented, even at the height of the Arab Spring and when the three Gulf countries pulled their ambassadors from Doha in 2014. Leading the charge against Qatar was Saud al-Qahtani, a royal court adviser and social media tzar who would lose his job the following year in the aftermath of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He used his Twitter account —which the company suspended last year— to mock and belittle Qatar’s ruler and his father, using highly charged language that is very unusual in a region where ruling families have always been off-limits even during moments of border disputes or other political tensions.

Qatar’s small population and limited technical capacity make it no match to the Saudi-Emirati highly sophisticated hacking and social media strategy, but the gas-rich country has used its wealth in previous years to build a network of media outlets that came to escalate the intensity of their negative coverage of Saudi Arabia and its allies as the confrontation between the two sides heated.

With both sides digging in their heels, the Gulf crisis gradually reached a stalemate. Qatar has managed to overcome the initial shock of the boycott and found alternative —if expensive— routes for transport and trade. Saudi crown prince described Qatar as a “a very, very, very small issue” as the kingdom had to deal with a host of other crises in quick succession: a prolonged war in Yemen, the Ritz-Carlton corruption purge, a diplomatic rift with Canada and the Khashoggi murder. The late Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait tried to mediate until he passed away in October. It seemed that his attempts were being repeatedly frustrated by a new generation of rulers who had little time for the Gulf’s long-held traditions and decorum, but maybe there is a light at the end of this tunnel after all.

Every time I was asked by colleagues or friends about this crisis since it first broke out, my answer has been pretty much the same: I think the two sides will come to some compromise before Qatar hosts the World Cup in late 2022, simply because it will be such a logistical nightmare to try to organise this huge international event under the travel and trade restrictions introduced by the boycott. The news about a potential thaw must have come as a huge source of relief for Fifa president Gianni Infantino who at some point tried to play peacemaker by naïvely suggesting that an expanded tournament can be shared by Qatar and its neighbours.

As we tentatively move closer to a conclusion of this saga, it is hard not to look back at the past three years and wonder about the resources spent on this dispute that could have been used elsewhere. Saudi Arabia and its allies may have been right that their long-term grievances against Qatar and its maverick policies must be addressed and they insist they had no choice but to take this course of action, but one has to ask if there could have been a more efficient way to handle this, especially considering the reputational damage incurred by the kingdom as a result of this crisis.

For some observers from outside who may not be privy to the long and complex history of the region, Saudi Arabia must have looked like it was bullying its much smaller neighbour. The beoutQ piracy operation debacle is another consequence that continues to hurt the kingdom’s image even after it was shut down as the government is now trying to acquire sports rights legally. Not to mention how this crisis played out beyond our borders with all the litigation at international bodies that has probably hurt the chances of Saudi royal court adviser Mohammed al-Tuwaijri when he sought the top job at the World Trade Organisation earlier this year.

Another aspect not often talked about in this dispute is the human cost. There are many families across the Gulf spread all over these countries or have moved freely between them in the last three decades thanks to GCC rules that allow people to travel in the region without a passport and practically treat the citizens of each country as locals when it comes to employment and ownership. It is estimated that more than 17,000 Saudis were living in Qatar before the crisis. Overnight, they suddenly had to make major life decisions about their jobs and families without having many options.

Finally, it will be interesting to watch how the potential end of the Gulf crisis would play in the context of the Saudi-UAE alliance. The two countries have diverged over the Yemen war and more recently we saw tension related to the compliance with Opec+ oil cuts. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have dismissed the idea of a limited resolution that doesn’t include UAE as well as Bahrain and Egypt. But those considered “Abu Dhabi’s men” in Riyadh who continue to define the dispute in the terms of an existential battle, and some of them have not been exactly shy about expressing scepticism of the recent talks, arguing that the Qataris still cannot be trusted.

When rumours about a possible opening in the crisis began gathering pace in early November, Saudi journalist Abdulaziz al-Khames, who hosts a talk show on Sky News Arabia, posted a stern video warning against the calls for ending the rift where he attempted to channel Amal Dunqul’s famous poem “Do Not Reconcile”. 

“Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, but would you reconcile with someone who turned against you? Would you reconcile with someone who betrayed you every time you trusted them, as we have seen in 2014? Would you reconcile with someone who hides his dagger behind his back?” Khames asked. “Those who call for reconciliation do not understand the story. The only thing they care about is their own interests…”

Similar sentiments can be seen on the other side. “The Gulf reconciliation being talked about over the past two days requires first apologising to the Qatari people and for Saudi Arabia to cease its previous behaviour where it aimed to force its will and agenda on others and not to interfere in deciding the fate of Arab populations who seek liberty from tyrannical regimes,” Issa Al Ishaq, a Qatari writer, said on Twitter.

It is not surprising that, after three years of nasty attacks and counterattacks, the mistrust is running deep. It is far easier to take something apart than put it back together.

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email to: alomran@hey.com or via Twitter: @ahmed