Doha’s policies upend Qatari-Saudi talks

Observers said the Arab Quartet is unlikely to be receptive to any last-minute overtures by Qatar.
Sunday 16/02/2020
Former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani attends the Gulf  Cooperation Council’s 40th Summit in Riyadh, last December. (Reuters)
Missed opportunity. Former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani attends the Gulf Cooperation Council’s 40th Summit in Riyadh, last December. (Reuters)

LONDON - Talks between Saudi Arabia and Qatar aimed at ending the 3-year-old diplomatic conflict were abruptly halted without tangible progress towards reconciliation.

The development came as no surprise considering Doha’s unchanged alignment with Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood-friendly government and Iran.

Thomson-Reuters reported that talks between Doha and Riyadh, which began last October, had collapsed. The report, which quoted six unidentified sources, attributed the failure to a fundamental lack of commitment by Qatar.

A Gulf diplomatic source said, despite initial expressions of willingness to compromise, Doha “failed to capitalise on a golden opportunity” that would have returned it to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) fold.

A November report by the Wall Street Journal said Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani made an unannounced trip to Riyadh in October to meet with top Saudi officials. Sheikh Mohammed was quoted as saying that Qatar was “willing to sever its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Ending links with the Brotherhood was among chief demands issued by the Arab Quartet — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — involved in the dispute with Qatar.

In December, ahead of the annual GCC summit, an invitation to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was viewed with optimism in some circles, particularly among Kuwaiti officials who have been working to resolve the dispute since June 2017 when the Arab Quartet severed ties with Doha.

After the GCC summit, which Sheikh Tamim did not attend, the Riyadh-Doha talks fell apart, with matters returning “to square one,” Gulf sources said.

When the crisis erupted in June 2017, the Arab Quartet issued 13 demands for Qatar, including an end to support for the Muslim Brotherhood movement and the curtailing of ties with Iran.

Doha, however, maintained close ties with Tehran triggering suspicion of Qatari complicity in Iran’s attempts at destabilising the region, especially in Yemen. The Qataris also boosted relations with the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to include the stationing of 5,000 Turkish troops on their territory.

Mohamed Al Hammadi, editor-in-chief of Alroeya newspaper, recently noted that “Turkey’s president met his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim,” on the sidelines of last year’s Islamic Summit in Kuala Lumpur.

“It is claimed the trio agreed at this meeting to ‘heat up’ matters in Yemen by bringing Muslim Brotherhood or Al Islah factions closer to the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group, with the aim of exhausting coalition forces in the country, Hammadi wrote.

Moreover, it appears that Doha entered the recent talks with Riyadh with the 2022 FIFA World Cup in mind.

Western diplomats said Qatari authorities hoped the talks would lead to the restoration of free movement for its citizens within the GCC, the reopening of its land border shared with Saudi Arabia and access to the airspace of the boycotting countries.

In 2019, despite controversy related to migrant workers’ treatment in Qatar, FIFA proposed expanding the World Cup tournament to 48 teams from 32, which would have required neighbouring Gulf countries to share hosting duties. However, with only Kuwait and Oman being the viable options, expansion plans were dropped.

With billions of dollars invested in building the infrastructure needed for the World Cup, there is likelihood Qatar will adopt more flexible stances as the tournament approaches.

However, considering Doha’s damaged credibility over its missed opportunity at negotiating a way out of the crisis, observers said the Arab Quartet is unlikely to be receptive to last-minute overtures by Qatar.

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