This month’s Gulf Arab summit—also known as the “Sultan Qaboos bin Said and Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah summit”—in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia was truly historic. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt at last lifted their blockade on Doha which began on June 5, 2017, in exchange for the Qataris agreeing to freeze legal actions against them. Doha not needing to meet any of the anti-Qatar Quartet’s initial 13 demands demonstrated the extent to which the blockade ended on terms that were highly favorable to Doha.
The Al-Ula communique is more likely to be a commitment to a Saudi-Qatari reconciliation rather than a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) reconciliation. Since the beginning of negotiations between Riyadh and Doha and throughout the past few weeks, there has been evidence of stagnation with regards to Abu Dhabi and Manama’s feuds with Qatar. Doha accused Bahraini jets of violating Qatari airspace on December 9, prompting Doha to complain to the United Nations Security Council; Manama denied the allegation. Three days later, the Qataris arrested three Bahraini sailors in Qatari waters. The communication between Manama and Doha seemed nearly impossible at the time of the summit, evidenced by the fact that the Bahraini sailors’ release came through Omani mediation. Additionally, only two weeks after the reconciliation, Manama announced the confiscation of properties in Bahrain that belong to a Qatari royal member (an uncle of Qatar’s emir).
The Qatari-Emirati feud might be deeper than Qatar’s dispute with either Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. It is clear that Doha and Abu Dhabi will continue to view regional conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean through different lenses. Furthermore, the roles of Iran and Turkey in the Gulf region and broader Middle East will remain an obstacle to bringing both countries closer. The Qatari-Emirati stalemate is evident, as we have not seen a visible attempt to re-establish the communication channels between both countries, nor any attempt to heal the damage resulting from the blockade. This rift between the UAE and Qatar was unprecedented in the first place as both countries employed various media outlets to undermine the other.
Emirati media, press, and social media accounts have gone as far as attacking members of the Qatari royal family. Both during the three-and-a-half-years of the GCC crisis, and even after the al-Ula summit, the information war between Emirati and Qatari media platforms has raged on. The UAE’s media has accused the Qataris of financing extremist groups, while the Qatari backed media attacked Emirati military expansion in the Horn of Africa. The two countries’ diverging foreign policies and purported interference in each other’s domestic affairs have erected serious barriers and exacerbated trust issues. Also, whereas the Qatari-Saudi border crossing has reopened with people and goods crossing it, there has not yet been any reports about Emiratis and Qataris visiting each other in the other country.
Superficial Reconciliation Will Not Cement Unresolved Divisions
Amid much celebration and rhetoric about Gulf Arab reconciliation, it is worth asking how much has changed in the Gulf sub-region as a result of the al-Ula summit. The end of the blockade indeed opens up new possibilities for greater cooperation between the GCC members in post-COVID-19 recovery, economic diversification, tourism, and other domains. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the underlying sources of tension between the monarchies on both sides of the GCC rift remain unresolved. Ultimately, the blockade was merely a symptom of these frictions, not their root causes. Without addressing the issues that led to the Gulf dispute breaking out in 2017, there is a risk of a third GCC crisis erupting in the future.
At the heart of the GCC feud are fundamental questions and concerns about the future of the Arab region. Should there be space in Arab states’ political arenas for Islamist parties? How should Gulf Arab states view the Islamist power centers that emerged in the post-Arab Spring period? How much independence should Arab media outlets enjoy? Additionally, there is no GCC consensus regarding sensitive questions about Turkey and Iran’s roles in the Gulf security landscape. Such topics, among others, remain unresolved. The GCC states must address them in order to avoid a third crisis.
Implications of the Rentier Social Contract on Political Liberalization
Questions about the evolutions of social contracts between the Gulf sub-region’s rulers and subjects are also likely to continue creating major sources of tension between the different monarchies. This is especially true considering political liberalization developing at different rates across the GCC states. For years, political liberalization has driven a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the smaller GCC states that have made, or at least considered such reforms.
Kuwait’s semi-democratic political system has often unnerved Saudi authorities, who are fearful that Saudi citizens may see Kuwait’s approach to governance, and demand that Saudi Arabia cease to be an absolute monarchy and instead adapt Kuwait’s governance. In a recent article published by the Brookings Institution, Yasmina Abouzzohour argued that Oman’s government “must first renegotiate its pseudo-rentier social contract with the population” and accept “some degree of political liberalization…” While Oman has been under more of this pressure due to its lesser level of hydrocarbon wealth than its GCC neighbors, all GCC monarchies will face these same dilemmas at some point in the future.
Prior to the blockade of Qatar in 2017, Qatari leadership often refrained from accelerating Doha’s political liberalization campaign that began to develop in the 1990s. This has largely been in response to Riyadh’s unfavorable stance on smaller GCC states’ liberalization efforts. So, officials in Doha have actually benefited from Qatar coming under siege in June 2017. Qatari government now feels more confident and comfortable liberalizing the country’s policies without the Saudi influence. Examples include amending residency laws for foreigners, dismantling the Kafala system, and moving towards announcing election for the Shura Council in November 2021. Now, regardless of the al-Ula summit’s outcome, Qatar’s embrace of greater openness and relative freedoms will remain a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. These dynamics most likely guarantee a continuation of friction between Riyadh and Doha moving forward.
Weaponized Media Undermines al-Ula Unity
The differing media landscapes within the six GCC countries are also a strain to intra-Gulf Arab relations. It was remarkable how soon after the al-Ula summit Manama issued a statement accusing Qatari state-owned media of misrepresenting facts surrounding a human rights issue in Bahrain. It is too early to tell whether Doha-headquartered networks like Al Jazeera will tone down their coverage and analysis on sensitive issues in other GCC states and Egypt. But unless that occurs, it is safe to assume that Qatari media will continue upsetting the states that included a closure of Al Jazeera as one of their 13 demands for reconciliation with Doha at the outset of the Gulf crisis.
Additionally, the vitriolic coverage of Qatar, along with outlandish accusations against Doha from anti-Qatar Quartet’s media outlets, will likely have a lasting and toxic effect on the Gulf’s media landscape. The extent to which the blockading countries weaponized their media outlets to damage Qatar’s reputation, both regionally and internationally, will have a longer-term impact on media in the polarized Gulf region. The signing of the al-Ula communique will not automatically heal these wounds.
It is also worthwhile to note that harm inflicted on people of the Gulf as a consequence of this three-and-a-half-year blockade will continue to put pressure on GCC countries’ relations despite the signing of the al-Ula communique this month. Unlike the first Gulf crisis in 2014, the second Gulf crisis had a huge impact on families and individuals at a citizen-to-citizen level.
A Lack of Structured Monitoring for Compliance May Foment Suspicion
While the al-Ula summit ultimately affords the GCC rulers an opportunity to address their differences in more diplomatic and less confrontational manner, the divide will remain deep. A legitimate concern is that the communique will prove to be too vague and lack mechanisms to monitor compliance with the terms. A real risk is that the al-Ula agreement will suffer the same fate as the one signed by GCC states in Riyadh in 2014. Given these factors, there is a possibility of a third Gulf crisis breaking out in the future, perhaps when factors related to U.S. foreign policy create conditions similar to those which existed shortly after President Donald Trump’s historic visit to Riyadh in mid-2017.
Within this context, there is a good chance that Qatar and the Quartet will continue to be wary and suspicious of each other. The blockading states’ 13 demands from 2017 were abandoned at this month’s Gulf Arab summit because, for now, they cease to be the basis for reopening borders. However, those demands reflect real differences that the three Gulf states and Egypt have with Doha. The al-Ula summit did not change that. In sum, despite major progress on the GCC reconciliation in al-Ula this month, the concept of Gulf Arab unity remains elusive.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC. His research interests include geopolitical and security trends in the Arabian Peninsula and the broader Middle East.
Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.