While these tensions will likely remain in the picture throughout the future, Gulf leaders have adopted new ways of addressing them.
In the ten months since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s historic al-Ula summit, there has been a gradual warming in intra-Gulf relations. The members of the sub-regional bloc have done much to move past the region’s 2017-2021 crisis, in which three of its constituent states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain—blockaded a fourth, Qatar. At al-Ula, three and a half years after the blockade began, the four nations agreed to end the blockade and committed to beginning a new chapter based on greater cooperation within the Council.
In the ten months since then, the nations of the GCC have generally followed through on this commitment. The second major Gulf summit, the “Saudi Green Initiative,” took place in Riyadh in October, and played host to dignitaries from both Qatar and each of the blockading states. The conference resulted in a pledged $10 billion fund between the GCC states to combat climate change, and it also featured a high-profile one-on-one meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, helping to reinforce the perception of close intra-GCC ties.
The summit’s outcome shows a genuine desire in the Gulf to improve ties between the GCC states, despite the political differences that have fueled friction between them over the years. While these tensions will likely remain in the picture throughout the future, Gulf leaders have adopted new ways of addressing them; rather than allowing intra-Gulf disputes and conflicts of interest to play out in public. For instance, the monarchs of the Gulf have shifted to presenting a united public face and addressing the sources of tension behind closed doors. During the first few months after the lifting of the blockade on Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt took major steps to signal their desire to mend rifts with Doha. Meanwhile, the UAE and Bahrain were slower in reaching out to Qatar.
A Pragmatic Detente
Abu Dhabi has realized that, as it has continued to pursue the Gulf’s regional rivalry, most of the other GCC states have moved on. In September, Saudi Arabia opened dialogue with Iran in Baghdad, and Riyadh and Cairo also mended ties with Turkey and Qatar, leaving Abu Dhabi alone in seeking confrontation. Seeing the writing on the wall, Abu Dhabi has made a U-turn in its approach to seek a policy of “zero problems with the neighbors.” It has since sought rapprochement with its three rivals in Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, and even pushed to build ties with the Assad regime, which continues to be isolated by many Arab states. This policy reflects a set of new tactics on Abu Dhabi’s part to craft a stronger role in the region for itself, with little fundamental difference from its post-Arab Spring regional policy.
Moreover, 2020 and 2021 have been unusual years for the Gulf—and the challenges that the COVID-19 era has created for the GCC help to explain why Abu Dhabi agreed to join Riyadh, Manama, and Cairo in improving relations with Doha. Earlier this month, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, visited MbZ in the UAE. Reporting on the Qatari official visiting the country, Emirati media made reference to “fraternal relations” between the two Gulf countries. Considering the vitriolic language used to describe Qatar in the Emirati press amid the second GCC crisis, this change in tone from mass media in the UAE is significant. Before that visit, National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a brother of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and the UAE’s de facto ruler, has held talks with Qatar’s emir in Doha, in the first such visit in four years following the al-Ula agreement.
In general, Abu Dhabi’s decision to turn over a new leaf with Doha reflects ruthless pragmatism on behalf of the country’s leaders. With an economy impacted by COVID-19 and volatile oil prices, the UAE’s leadership realizes that economic challenges highlight the need to explore more opportunities for greater integration with the five other GCC states, including Qatar. In particular, the FIFA World Cup, to be held in Qatar in November and December 2022, could provide rewards in tourism dollars for surrounding countries—but Emirati leaders understood that they would not benefit from that global event if they had continued to impose a blockade on travel from Qatar.
Another factor contributing to the UAE’s desire to improve relations with Qatar pertains to the chaotic situation in Afghanistan. Unsettled by the Taliban’s return to power, as well as the implications of America’s loss of face as a security guarantor, Abu Dhabi is forced to adapt to changing circumstances. In preparation for “post-American Gulf era” following the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan, the member states of the GCC see an increasing need for growing regional cooperation. As Arab Gulf officials are increasingly doubtful of the long-term U.S. commitment to Gulf security, and remain unsure that any other major power could replace the U.S. as the GCC states’ security guarantor, improving intra-Gulf relations is seen as a pragmatic decision with benefits for regional stability.
A third reason for the rapprochement has been the resolution of the “Arab Spring” pro-democracy protests, which continued in several waves from 2011 onward. The Arab Spring, which Qatari media supported and most of the other GCC monarchies opposed, came to become a significant source of division within the GCC. However, for all essential purposes, the Arab Spring has since ended in failure. Libya, Syria, and Yemen remain mired in sectarian civil wars; military rule has been firmly restored in Egypt; and with President Kais Saied’s “self-coup” in July 2021 and Sudanese General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s seizure of power in October, the final “success stories” of the protests have been extinguished. The suppression of the protests has solidified Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s regional position and made them more willing to engage with Qatar from a position of strength.
At the same time that the UAE and Qatar have mended their ties, other bilateral relationships in the GCC have warmed up as well. Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman have managed to resolve some of the issues that fueled friction between Riyadh and Muscat in previous years. Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, who ascended to the throne in January 2020 following the fifty-year rule of his cousin, Sultan Qaboos, is also reported to be on much better terms with Abu Dhabi than his predecessor, which has led to an associated easing of friction between Oman and the UAE.
This broader rule of easing tensions has not penetrated all of the GCC states. Although Bahrain, a small island nation off the Saudi and Qatari coasts, participated in the al-Ula summit and restored its relations with Qatar, both Doha and Manama has done conspicuously little to improve bilateral ties this year. Just as Manama stood out as the only Gulf capital which did not seriously engage the Iranians in 2021, Bahrain appeared more excited to establish relations with Israel than making efforts to improve ties with Doha.
There are several identifiable reasons for this. It comes as a little surprise that Bahrain, the first country to embargo Qatar in 2017, would be the last to make peace. The blockade of Qatar was relatively painless for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but had significant consequences for Bahrain, which enjoyed expansive economic ties with Doha prior to the sudden severing of trade links. Consequently, although the ambassadors have returned, animosity between the two nations has persisted. Another key driver has been the territorial dispute between the two nations over the Hawar Islands, a small island chain that lies between them and that both nations have claimed. Although a 2001 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) formally split the chain in half, this settlement has not satisfied Manama, and vitriol over the division has periodically re-erupted.
However, it remains unclear how long this new spirit of reconciliation and cooperation will last. After the world economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and demand for oil stabilizes, the financial position of the GCC states will improve, giving them greater flexibility to pursue political action against one another. Another possible spoiling effect has been the administration of President Joe Biden, whose animosity toward the autocratic Gulf governments pushed them to mend ties in an attempt to present themselves to Washington as peacemakers. If Biden’s Democratic administration is replaced by a future Saudi- or Emirati-friendly Republican administration, the strategic calculations of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may change again. For these reasons, it remains to be seen if intra-GCC outreach merely took place to mollify the United States, or if they are serious about the rapprochements for the long term.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gulf International Forum.