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What the Al-Ula GCC Summit Has (and Has Not) Accomplished

Did Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s embrace of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid signal a conclusive end to the “Gulf Crisis” that began in June 2017? One would hope so, but things might be more complicated than most observers think. A structural challenge for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been that none of the states have the leverage to coerce the others to submit to their will. Consequently, as long as the strategic interests of the GCC countries diverge, perpetual tensions will endure. The current Gulf confrontation did not begin in 2017; its origins lie in dynastic intra-GCC rivalries going back several decades. The same four countries that blockaded Qatar in 2017 – the “Quartet” – earlier attempted to facilitate the overthrow of the Al-Thani family in 1996, and later withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in 2014. Ending the 2017 blockade is a welcome step, but it might be only the next chapter in an unending story.

From most accounts of the Al-Ula summit, Qatar made no real concessions to the Quartet. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid, Qatar’s ruler, agreed to withdraw the international lawsuits his country filed against the closing of its neighbors’ airspace and territorial waters. However, this was not a significant concession; the suits would have been rendered moot by the reopening of Saudi airspace in any case. Given this, why would Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent its Quartet partners Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt) agree to lift the blockade?

One answer is that there has been an overarching trend towards regionalized security arrangements related to a transition in America’s leadership and the perceived withdrawal of Washington from the Middle East. Furthermore, even though Qatar did not agree to any of the Quartet’s initial demands, Saudi Arabia found that lifting the blockade has nonetheless been a politically rewarding move.

Why UAE, Egypt and Bahrain Signed, Despite Reservations

The government of the UAE has reluctantly signed on to the agreement likely to avoid isolation. However, its minister of state for foreign affairs included a serious caveat: a statement that the Al-Ula Declaration was the “beginning of a new dialogue” rather than a full-fledged reconciliation. Bahrain and Egypt have issued similar reservations.

Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) appeared to have gained the confidence and even deference of MbS three years ago when the decision to break with Qatar was taken. The Al-Ula Declaration seems to indicate that MbS has chosen to distance himself from his UAE counterpart. The fact that Abu Dhabi has developed into the first inner-Gulf country that may be strong enough to challenge Riyadh without outside assistance cannot have escaped Saudi attention.

Bahrain, on the other hand, had little choice but to agree to the Al-Ula Declaration. Saudi Arabia has reduced it to political vassalage, and the UAE provides the lifeline keeping its economy afloat. The same can be said of Egypt, which faces challenges from Turkey in Libya and the Mediterranean and from Islamist opposition at home. Cairo badly needs a continued inflow of Gulf investment to keep its economy afloat and its domestic enemies at bay.

A Transition in Washington’s Leadership Makes a Regional Solution More Urgent

With regards to U.S.-Saudi relations, the Al-Ula agreement serves as a win-win for Riyadh’s relations with both the outgoing and incoming American administrations. First, Joe Biden’s election victory provided the impetus for the Saudi decision to seek a rapprochement with Qatar. MbS has every reason to fear that a Biden administration will be hostile to him personally as he prepares to take the throne. With a Democratic majority in both the upper and lower chambers of Congress, Biden’s pledge to end U.S. support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen and hold MbS accountable on human rights issues will meet little opposition. MbS must also have concerns about how Biden’s administration might not welcome his accession to the throne if King Salman abdicated or otherwise passed from the scene before the next American elections in 2024.

Second, the rapprochement gives outgoing President Donald Trump another diplomatic victory in the Middle East as he seeks to build his legacy. From Trump’s perspective, resolving the Gulf rift appeared to be simple when compared to the other unwieldy conflicts across the region. There may, of course, be other backdoor arrangements between MbS and the Trump administration that have yet to come to light.

Although both the outgoing and incoming administrations will welcome the lifting of the blockade, each has significantly different priorities for U.S policy in the Gulf region. In contrast to Trump, who made the GCC states and confronting Iran his primary focus, Biden will place more emphasis on diplomacy with Iran and reentering the JCPOA. The President-elect will not ignore GCC interests altogether, but seems unlikely to allow them to hinder his return to the agreement with Iran. The GCC states fear the U.S. will revive policies of the Obama era, an era that marked the beginning of America’s decreasing security role in the region. This pushes them to seek their own regional security solutions, with the development of a more united front between the GCC states as a first priority. Therefore, we should see the lifting of the blockade and the Emirati and Bahraini normalizations with Israel as steps in attempting to develop regionalized security.

Saudi Arabia Exploits Domestic Opportunities from Summit

Saudi Arabia exploited every opportunity to use the Al-Ula Agreement to capitalize on strategic messaging that benefits it economically and politically. Notably, although the Al-Ula conference was a GCC summit meeting, King Salman did not appear at any of the sessions, apparently wishing to pave the way for his son’s succession. His conspicuous absence could be an attempt to display MbS as a statesman, and rebrand him as a regional problem-solver.

Hosting the summit in Saudi Arabia’s newly-rebuilt ancient city of Al-Ula portrayed the Kingdom as the regional leader, while also heralding a new era of Saudi Arabia’s modernization and development under MbS. Photoshoots at the summit in front of the Maraya Concert Hall (the world’s largest mirror-clad building) served as a subtle tourism marketing strategy for Al-Ula, a trading center dating to the sixth century BC, while further showcasing progress in Saudi economic development.

An Overarching Trend of Regionalized Security

The Al-Ula Declaration should not be viewed as an epoch-making geopolitical event, but rather as a milestone in an overarching search for regionalized security. However, the agreement offers some opportunities for geopolitical maneuvering. Saudi Arabia sees this as an important development to facilitate fence-mending with Turkey. The Al-Ula Declaration effectively signals Riyadh’s abandoning the blockading Quartet’s ‘thirteen demands’ against Qatar, which included a demand to close the Turkish military base in Qatar, thus removing a serious obstacle to rapprochement with Ankara. The November 2020 phone call between King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss improving Turkish-Saudi relations was a crucial first step.

The UAE has caught on to the possible Turkish-Saudi rapprochement and may be de-escalating with Turkey. Although the UAE’s relations with Turkey have grown acrimonious over the past decade, there have been signs of some de-escalation after the Al-Ula summit. Shortly after the summit, Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, stated that the UAE is Turkey’s number one trading partner in the Middle East and “we don’t cherish any feuds with Turkey”, an unsurprising response when following UAE politics as it is known for adapting quickly to unfolding regional events. Last year’s de-escalation with Iran is another example of this behavior.

The summit does not mark a fundamental change in GCC-Iran relations. Fearing a repeat of their problems, Qatar has made it clear that regardless of its agreement with the blockading states, it will not change its relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia, for its part, will continue to view Iran as its main security threat. However, depending on how much progress the Al-Ula agreement will lead to in resolving the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Lebanon, and the potential reinstatement of the JCPOA, the aggregate effect of the reduction of regional tensions could indirectly affect Iran’s standing in the region.

Moving Forward, There is Much Work to Be Done

The Al-Ula summit agreement was a confidence-building measure that offers Qatar a framework for moving towards further regional reconciliation. This will require Qatar to deploy agile diplomacy to further develop bilateral relations with members of the Quartet. This appears to have begun with the announcement by the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Al-Thani, that bilateral talks between Qatar and Egypt are underway.

In the near term, the 2021 GCC Summit appears to have created concrete motion towards resolving intra-GCC disputes. On the surface, at least, the six countries have shown that they can overcome their differences. Riyadh, in particular, needs to demonstrate to the incoming Biden administration that it speaks for a united GCC and should keep the reconciliation process on track. But intra-GCC differences and their underlying rivalries have not gone away, and could unexpectedly reappear in a future Gulf crisis.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.

Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum. Her area of expertise is on the Gulf region’s geopolitics, US-Gulf relations, and the political economy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. She is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Dr. Thafer been widely published on matters concerning the Arab Gulf states including several articles and publications. She has co-authored two edited books “The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States: Trends and Implications” and “The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region”. Dr. Thafer is currently writing a book focused on the effect of state-business relations on economic reform in the GCC states. Previously, she worked at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Dr. Thafer has a master’s degree in Political Economy from New York University, and PhD specialized in the Political Economy and International Relations of the GCC states from American University in Washington, DC.

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