Mediation or reconciliation? Saudi FM’s visit to Qatar raises many questions
DOHA - A surprise visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan on Monday to the Qatari capital, Doha, raised many questions about the objectives of such a trip.
Regional observers wondered whether the visit was aimed at completing the Qatari-Saudi reconciliation process, which began at the Al-Ula Gulf summit hosted by the Kingdom last January, or was in fact meant to pave the way for a possible mediation between Riyadh and Tehran.
The Saudi minister’s visit came after a similar trip by Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif to Qatar, which has maintained good relations with Iran and steered clear of the tensions that dominated the relationship between Tehran and most Arab Gulf capitals over the past few years.
Regional observers considered that Qatar is a candidate alongside Iraq to conduct mediation if Riyadh was to accept dialogue with Tehran.
Bin Farhan and his accompanying delegation arrived at Doha International Airport on Monday and was received by his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman and the chargé d’affaires of the Saudi Embassy in Qatar Ali bin Saad Al-Qahtani.
The two foreign ministers discussed “Gulf unity”, according to Qatar’s foreign ministry.
The two also spoke about the activation of “the mechanisms of the Saudi-Qatari Coordination Council and all that would enhance bilateral relations and develop joint work in various areas of coordination and cooperation between the two countries,” the Saudi foreign ministry said.
Since the reconciliation, there have been cautious steps towards normality, including the resumption of air travel between the former adversaries and the reopening of Qatar’s sole land border with Saudi Arabia.
The Qatari emir’s office said Monday Saudi King Salman invited Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to visit the kingdom, the latest sign of improving relations between the former rivals.
Riyadh and allies broke off ties with Qatar in June 2017 over claims it was too close to Iran and backed radical Islamist groups, allegations Qatar has always denied.
But in January, the boycotting countries agreed to reestablish Qatari ties following a flurry of diplomatic activity by former US president Donald Trump’s administration.
The emir received a letter from King Salman “including an invitation to visit” Saudi Arabia, the emir’s office said in a statement.
It did not say if Sheikh Tamim had accepted or when the visit would take place.
He last travelled to the kingdom in January for the Gulf summit, hosted by the king’s son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which led to Doha being readmitted to the regional fold.
He did not meet the king at that time. The invitation was delivered by the Saudi foreign minister.
In recent days, news emerged of a number of moves to restore the severed relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Observers also recorded the existence of an unusual flurry of diplomatic activity in the region, noting that this could signal a regional push for launching a dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh.
On Sunday, the Iranian foreign minister began a tour in the region, starting with a visit to Doha, before arriving Monday in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh put out a statement saying that the tour falls within the framework of developing bilateral relations and addressing regional and international talks.
Zarif’s visits come a few days after a report in The Financial Times maintained that a first meeting had already been held on April 9 between Saudis and Iranians. Riyadh has officially denied the talks in its state media while Tehran has stayed mum, asserting only that it has “always welcomed” dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
The Baghdad talks are supposed to have been facilitated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. They remained secret until the Financial Times report. An Iraqi government official and a Western diplomat later confirmed Saudi Arabia and Iran have been holding talks in Baghdad in recent weeks.
Tehran and Riyadh cut ties in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the kingdom’s execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have backed opposite sides of several regional conflicts, from Syria to Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Houthi militias.
Iran supports the Houthis, who have launched several rocket and drone attacks against Saudi targets.
Concerned about Iran’s regional influence, Riyadh has repeatedly accused Tehran of interfering in the affairs of Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Riyadh also remains apprehensive about Iran’s nuclear programme and missile capabilities.
The Baghdad talks come during negotiations in Vienna that aim to return the United States to the 2015 nuclear accord and persuade Iran to implement nuclear commitments it suspended in response to US sanctions.
Iraq, wedged between Iran to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south, is meanwhile trying to serve as a mediator, to avoid becoming a battleground for regional powers.
Iran has previously rejected Saudi calls to involve Riyadh and its regional allies in international talks on the nuclear file, but has repeatedly confirmed its readiness to conduct a regional dialogue.
Diplomatic statements that accompanied Zarif’s visit to Doha were not without hints that the focus of talks was on the regional situation.
The Qatar News Agency reported that the Qatari Foreign Minister and his Iranian counterpart reviewed “ways to reduce tension in the region and enhance its security and stability through dialogue.”