Kuwait achieves breakthrough towards reconciliation in Gulf summit

Reopening airspace and land and sea borders between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a step to Saudi-Qatari reconciliation.
Tuesday 05/01/2021
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) welcomes Emir of Kuwait Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (C) upon his arrival in the city of al-Ula in Saudi Arabia for the 41st GCC summit.  (AFP)
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) welcomes Emir of Kuwait Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (C) upon his arrival in the city of al-Ula in Saudi Arabia for the 41st GCC summit. (AFP)

RIYADH – Kuwait has achieved an expected breakthrough on the eve of the Gulf summit and seems very close to setting in motion the reconciliation process between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

As a first step in this process, it was announced that both sides have agreed to reopen airspace and land and sea borders between Saudi Arabia and Qatar starting Monday evening.

Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Sabah announced that Saudi Arabia would reopen its airspace and land borders with Qatar, more than three years after the onset of the Gulf crisis.

In a speech broadcast on Kuwaiti television, the minister said that based on the proposal of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, “It was agreed that the skies and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar would be opened as of today (Monday) evening.” The move was expected, as diplomats considered it a step to encourage Doha to attend the summit.

Reuters quoted a senior official in the administration of US President Donald Trump as saying that the agreement provides for lifting the boycott imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, provided that Doha abandon the lawsuits associated with it.

The official added that White House adviser Jared Kushner helped negotiate the agreement and would attend the signing ceremony with two other officials.

The Saudi Press Agency quoted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz as saying that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit will aim to achieve unity, close ranks and translate aspirations towards reunification and solidarity.

Crown Prince Mohammed added that the kingdom's policy under the leadership of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is based on the firm approach of achieving the supreme interests of GCC states and Arab countries.

He said that the GCC summit will be one for “unifying voices, closing ranks and consolidating the path of good and prosperity,” and that it will translate the aspirations of King Salman and his brothers, the leaders of the GCC states, for “reunification and solidarity in facing the challenges in our region.”

A Saudi television anchor stands in front of the logo of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the media centrein at Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 5, 2021. (AP)
A Saudi television anchor stands in front of the logo of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the media centre in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, January 5, 2021. (AP)

Prior to the agreement's announcement, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani received a verbal message from the Kuwaiti emir conveyed to him by the Kuwaiti foreign minister “related to the strong fraternal relations between the two countries and the prospects for strengthening and developing them, and to joint Gulf action.”

Observers of Gulf affairs noted that Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's absence at the summit, and his representation by delegating Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, is an indication that some of the steps of the reconciliation process will be at Bahrain’s expense.

They pointed out that all signs preceding the summit clearly indicate that the reconciliation drive is primarily a Saudi-Qatari one, as the outstanding problems with the rest of the boycotting parties remain pending.

Kuwait announced that its Emir Sheikh Nawaf would head the country's delegation to the 41st GCC summit.

In parallel, Oman announced that Fahd bin Mahmoud Al Said, deputy prime minister for cabinet affairs, would lead his country's delegation to the summit on behalf of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said. By not making the trip to Riyadh in person, Sultan Haitham is walking in the footsteps of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who, during his final ten years, often sent a representative to the Gulf, Arab League or Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summits.

Diplomatic sources said that Sultan Haitham does not oppose the summit, but rather supports it, and that his absence is only due to internal protocols because of concerns within the Sultanate.

Despite the optimism generated by the latest announcements, many Gulf nationals are careful not to have exceedingly high expectations for the summit. They attribute this to its agenda that puts reconciliation as the main issue, without considering its other dimensions and particularly its connection to the influence of Iran and Turkey in the region.

Gulf affairs experts said that the Gulf crisis requires much more to be resolved than for Qatar to stop the media campaigns waged by its Al-Jazeera channel against countries such as the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Campaigns targeting Saudi Arabia have recently stopped to support the reconciliation effort that Doha is in favour of.

Observers added that the crisis should not simply be resolved if Qatar meets demands to expel the foreign members of the Muslim Brotherhood finding refuge on its lands. They say it must ensure Doha’s broader commitment to rejecting foreign interference in Gulf affairs, especially from Iran and Turkey, as required by membership in the the GCC.

Qatar took advantage of the crisis between it and the boycotting quartet to open the country’s doors to a growing Iranian economic and intelligence role. It did the same with Turkey, which acquired a military base on Qatari soil and increased its economic influence, in complete violation of Doha’s Gulf commitments and the concept of its belonging to a unified Gulf entity that it is supposed to defend its national security rather than colluding with its opponents.

In addition to the Iranian threat and Turkish encroachment, other crises have put the Gulf countries in a difficult situation, such as the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, declining oil revenue and harsh austerity measures.

Observers believe that Qatar is not interested in solving these deep Gulf problems, and that it has an interest in keeping them simmering. Because of its small size and huge revenue, Qatar can win the waiting game against Saudi Arabia, which has large security, financial and population commitments.

Observers point out that Qatar seeks to use Iran and Turkey as weapons of attrition against Saudi Arabia, and to limit negotiations to the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Jazeera issues, as if they are the focus of the Gulf crisis, although they are in fact only secondary elements within a multi-faceted Qatari policy to weaken the GCC and undermine its security.

They believe that the challenge to the summit now is not the participation of Gulf leaders, but rather Doha’s commitment to decisions that guarantee Gulf security and pressuring it to revise its close ties to Tehran and Ankara.

They say that there are encouraging signs of a truce that may later turn into real reconciliation, depending on Qatar's behaviour and how serious it is about reconciliation.