Qatar’s cosy ties with Iran risk marring Gulf reconciliation

Doha is again walking a tightrope with Tehran.

Wednesday 06/01/2021
A January 2020 file photo shows Iranian President Hassan Rohani (L) welcoming Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani upon his arrival to Iran’s capital Tehran. (AFP)
A January 2020 file photo shows Iranian President Hassan Rohani (L) welcoming Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani upon his arrival to Iran’s capital Tehran. (AFP)

 DOHA – Qatar was embraced by its neighbours at a landmark summit after over three years of isolation, but the reconciliation did not address underlying resentments that observers say risk resurfacing.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June 2017 slapped a boycott on Qatar that severed air, land and sea links with the gas-rich nation over claims it backed radical Islamists and was too close to Iran — charges Doha denied.

But while the Saudi-led quartet agreed to restore relations and lift the restrictions on Tuesday, the talks in the kingdom’s desert city of Al-Ula glossed over Qatar’s cosy ties with Iran, raising the prospect of tensions erupting again between the Gulf monarchies.

What’s next?

One of the first signs of the thaw was an immediate change in tone from media on both the Qatari and Saudi sides, with habitually aggressive coverage dropping in favour of complimentary tweets and commentary.

But although the border between Saudi Arabia and its smaller neighbour may open in the coming days, allowing once-lively trade and tourism to resume, other activity may be delayed due to coronavirus precautions.

“The practical provisions of the agreement are open borders and diplomatic relations in exchange for an end of any hostile (Qatari) messaging — media, social media, think tanks, and lobbyists against quartet countries,” said Cinzia Bianco from the European Council on International Relations.

With regional economies seeking revitalisation after the double hit of coronavirus and an oil price slump, Qatari investment in neighbouring countries and Egypt could follow swiftly, said David Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London.

But years of bitter mud-slinging and accusations may not be quickly forgotten.

“The ideological root cause of the conflict will remain while all they do is address the symptoms,” said regional analyst Andreas Krieg.

“This is dangerous as this (diplomatic) conflict can erupt again.”

— New normal —

While all the boycott nations signed up to the declaration that emerged from Tuesday’s summit, there have been varying levels of enthusiasm.

Bahrain, locked in a separate dispute with Doha over maritime boundaries, has held back from effusive statements.

“Bahrain will follow,” said Roberts. “Evidently they are reluctant, but to defy the Saudi lead here would be unheard of.”

The depth of the sanctions, seen by many Qataris as excessive in the closely interlinked region, means “bitterness will remain — but a new normal will resume,” he added.

Wounds inflicted during the crisis could take years to heal.

Eman Alhussein, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said families divided by the crisis would likely be the first to take advantage of eased restrictions, but a restoration of links in other areas “might take time to materialise.”

“The severity of the 2017 crisis took many Gulf citizens by surprise. It also underlined the element of unpredictability in the region,” she said.

— Iranian factor —

Iran has been at the centre of the dispute as regional tensions with Tehran and its proxies escalate, notably in Yemen where Saudi Arabia and its allies are fighting a grinding war in support of the government against Houthi rebels.

Washington has intensified pressure for a resolution to the Gulf crisis to help isolate Tehran as the curtain falls on Donald Trump’s Iran-hawkish presidency.

A middle ground between Doha, on one side, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the other side, on this most divisive of regional topics may be hard to find.

Even “Qatar sees Iran’s regional activities as dangerous and destabilising,” said Royal United Services Institute analyst Tobias Borck.

But “at the same time, maintaining cordial relations with Iran, centred around the management of (their shared) gas field is absolutely and existentially essential for Qatar. So here Qatar is back to walking the tightrope.”

Saudi Arabia insisted the deal meant the Gulf family would be better able to combat “the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme,” while Tehran congratulated Qatar for resisting “pressure and extortion.”

— Trump victory —

 Washington has undertaken a flurry of shuttle diplomacy in the region as Trump’s mandate nears completion, with Democrat Joe Biden set to take office on January 20.

Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has led the march on everything from the UAE’s and Bahrain’s recent normalisation of ties with Israel to ending the blockade on Qatar.

Roberts said the resolution of the Gulf spat meant “Trump can claim that he’s a peacemaker.”

“Had Biden not been elected and had the Trump team not exercised pressure, Saudi would have not taken this step,” said Krieg.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States welcomed what he called a “breakthrough to restore Gulf and Arab unity.”

He added, “We hope the Gulf countries will continue to reconcile their differences. Restoring full diplomatic relations is imperative for all parties in the region to unite against common threats.”

The emerging deal followed mediation efforts by the United States and Kuwait, and a US official has said Qatar would suspend legal cases related to the boycott.

Diplomats and analysts said Riyadh was pushing reluctant allies to show Biden it is open to dialogue.

“This (deal) is seemingly influenced by a desire to pre-empt pressure from an incoming Biden administration, more than a genuine commitment to conflict resolution,” said Emadeddin Badi, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council.

All the states are US allies. Qatar hosts the region’s largest US military base, Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Saudi Arabia and the UAE host US troops.