GCC Rift over Qatar Comes to an End
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt announced on January 5 they would lift the embargo they had imposed on Qatar in 2017, and Qatar agreed to drop a slew of cases against those states in international organizations. While the agreement does not restore unity to the Gulf Cooperation Council, it does end an open rupture that had undermined any collective action.
Q1: How did the embargo start?
A1: In June 2017, Qatar television broadcast statements attributed to the emir of Qatar that were pro-Iranian and anti-Donald Trump, prompting Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to cut ties with the country. The four argued that the comments were the last straw in a long list of Qatari offenses that included support for the Muslim Brotherhood, involvement in terrorism, and close ties with Iran. They were unswayed by an FBI determination that the statements were the result of a hack by Russian nationals; instead, they came up with a list of 13 demands that included shutting down all of Qatar’s regional news outlets, cutting links to any political figures in the region, and pulling back from ties with Iran and Turkey. Many of the complaints about Qatar go back decades, and Qatar has periodically promised its neighbors it would moderate its actions. Regional concerns increased when Qatar developed close ties with Islamist political groups during the Arab Spring.
Q2: Why did this conflict go on so long?
A2: It seems that the states that initiated the blockage of Qatar thought either the Qatari government would fall or that it would concede to the demands of its neighbors. In fact, Qataris rallied around the country’s leadership, the economy proved resilient, and alternate suppliers were found for food and other imports. The Trump administration at first seemed split, with President Trump initially showing great sympathy for Qatar’s critics, and the State and Defense Departments worrying that a rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council undermined U.S. policy toward Iran. Over time, the U.S. government united behind the idea of resolving the issue, but it was not a very high priority.
Q3: Why did the embargo end?
A3: Mediation efforts have been going on for years, led by the Kuwaitis in the region and with increasing energy from the State Department. In recent weeks, White House adviser Jared Kushner made this a high priority for his final days in office. He personally negotiated with the region’s young leaders, and he called in debts from his time in the White House. In particular, he was at the center of a number of decisions that favored Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the last four years, and his family has long-standing business ties with Qatar. Some also speculate that as the Gulf states look forward to a Biden administration, they may be seeking to “clear the decks” of old disputes and present themselves as constructive actors interested in promoting regional stability.
Q4: What consequences will its ending have?
A4: This is more of a truce than a peace treaty. Qatar’s neighbors will reopen their airspace and resume travel and trade, and we can presume there will be some moderation in Qatar’s regional behavior. We should also anticipate that the media organs associated with the respective antagonists will soften their attacks. But a deep wound is still festering under the bandages here: Qatar still feels that its neighbors want to trample on its sovereignty, and the neighbors feel that Qatar remains a reckless actor in regional affairs. Confidence building will take years and will have setbacks.
Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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