As the final days of Donald Trump’s administration draw near, one of the policies closely associated with his presidency is also being undone.
The Saudi Arabian blockade of Qatar is being lifted after more than three years which has tested the security of the region. The conflict which has pitted Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE against Qatar has seen animosity deepen, something that could take years to repair.
Kuwait, which never joined the embargo, has worked since the beginning of the conflict to bridge a solution between the two sides.
Kuwait’s lack of success, however, was driven from Washington and the Trump administration in particular who acquiesced to it, making any resolution to the conflict difficult to achieve.
The incoming Biden administration, however, is likely to have influenced a U-turn in Saudi policy.
So what does this mean for Gulf countries?
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
The regional political union has been fragmented since 2017, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE announced that they would halt all flights and economic activity with the Kingdom of Qatar.
Kuwait has largely avoided being drawn into the conflict, serving as mediator and Oman has largely remained on the sidelines.
The announcement that the blockade will be lifted is likely to be good for the GCC. Each annual summit over the last several years has been dominated by Qatar.
A regional summit in December was postponed over disagreements. The bloc had moved from being a cooperation council to one of discord.
Tensions within the GCC will likely continue after the deal is signed but for the time being, will be contained.
The Kingdom which is widely believed to be run by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was one of the chief instigators of the current blockade in 2017.
Now Saudi Arabia has been eagerly pushing to mend the relationship.
Riyadh is acutely aware that the incoming Biden is going to be much different in how it approaches the region. Officials from the incoming administration have criticised the Kingdom’s human rights record. Biden has warned that the “love affair” with autocrats around the world has ended.
Saudi overtures in 2021 and talk of “brotherly” relations are a stark change from the ultimatum the Kingdom gave Qatar in 2017.
Back then Doha was given thirteen days to comply with a list of demands which amongst other things required it shut down its media organisation Al-Jazeera, end relations with Iran, and submit to country audits for 10 years. All the terms were refused by Qatar.
So what did MBS get for the turnaround?
Qatar has agreed to freeze and potentially drop lawsuits against Saudi which it launched at the World Trade Organization and the International Civil Aviation Authority. A significant but face-saving climbdown for Saudi.
United Arab Emirates
When it emerged last month that Al-Jazeera journalists were hacked using Israeli spyware by a regional Gulf country, many thought of the UAE.
The country has been one of the staunchest opponents of Qatar and is also likely to be the one that least welcomes the news of a rapprochement.
While Saudi Arabia has been on a public relations offensive with regards to the deal it has signed with Qatar, the UAE has been uncharacteristically quiet.
When the UAE signed an agreement recognising Israel it held parties across the Kingdom, Qatar is unlikely to receive the same level of enthusiasm.
Qatar is arguably one of the big winners. What started with a bang which shook the monarchy of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has ended in a whimper.
Sheikh Tamim, Qatar’s ruler, is likely to come out vindicated by his approach and by holding firm.
Doha, as we speak, rejoins the GCC without agreeing to any of Saudi Arabia’s demands. By agreeing to end the dispute before Biden’s inauguration, Riyadh hopes to curry favour with the new administration that has shown that it’s not willing to give the country a free pass.
More broadly Qatar’s brand of politics and statecraft and plucky resistance against its larger and more powerful neighbours are likely to win plaudits.
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