Gulf states sign deal to bring Qatar back to fold

Public embrace between leaders, reopening of Saudi borders ease three-year rift

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) welcoming Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on his arrival in the city of Al-Ula, in north-western Saudi Arabia, yesterday for the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council summit. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-P
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) welcoming Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on his arrival in the city of Al-Ula, in north-western Saudi Arabia, yesterday for the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council summit. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

AL-ULA (Saudi Arabia) • Gulf leaders signed a "solidarity and stability" deal yesterday after the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar publicly embraced, bringing Doha back into the regional fold after a three-year rift that has fractured the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia led a coalition of countries in the Gulf and beyond to cut ties and transport links with Qatar in June 2017, charging that it was too close to Iran and backed radical Islamist groups - allegations Doha denied.

Those countries, along with Oman and Kuwait that have mediated between the two sides, signed a rapprochement deal in the Saudi city of Al-Ula, after Riyadh overnight reopened its land, sea and air borders to Doha.

"There is a desperate need today to unite our efforts to promote our region and to confront challenges that surround us, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime's nuclear and ballistic missile programme and its plans for sabotage and destruction," said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Details of the agreement were not immediately released and analysts have warned that any deal could be preliminary and may not immediately end all measures taken against Qatar.

But the warm welcome that Prince Mohammed extended to Qatar's ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, with the pair embracing at the airport and then chatting animatedly, indicates a significant breakthrough.

"These are first steps... Some may belittle that progress, but resuming open direct communication and avoiding verbal attacks is progress," said Kuwait University assistant professor Bader al-Saif.

"The other states... will follow suit and pursue similar reconciliatory steps."

Washington has intensified pressure for a resolution to what Doha calls a "blockade", insisting Gulf unity is necessary to isolate US foe Iran as the curtain falls on Mr Donald Trump's presidency.

Mr Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's senior adviser who shuttled around the region to seek a deal, attended the signing in Al-Ula.

"The Trump administration will claim this as another victory for sure," said Royal United Services Institute analyst Tobias Borck, stressing that the boycott countries had not yet normalised relations with Qatar.

Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah announced on state television late on Monday that "it was agreed to open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar, starting from this evening".

Drivers south of Doha on the Salwa highway towards the Saudi border at Abu Samra sounded their horns and waved their arms from their car windows in the wake of the announcement.

"We will see all Saudis here, also all Qataris will visit Saudi Arabia, and we will be friends as we were before and better," said Mr Hisham al-Hashmi, a Qatari with an Emirati mother.

Saudi media, which is influential throughout the region, quickly adopted a tone in stark contrast to past coverage of Qatar that had focused on previous transgressions and alleged crimes, instead talking about "unity" and "fraternity".

The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council hawks, along with Egypt, in 2017 closed their airspace to Qatari planes, sealed their borders and ports, and expelled Qatari citizens. An information battle raged online with the two camps trading barbs, deepening the resentments.

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar in particular remain divided over Doha's perceived support for movements aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood and the two countries' backing for rival groups in the Libya conflict.

But the diplomatic freeze served only to make Qatar more self-sufficient and push it closer to Iran, observers say. It has also hurt Saudi strategic interests.

At the start of the crisis, the boycotting countries issued a list of 13 demands to Doha, including the closure of pan-Arab satellite television channel Al Jazeera and the shuttering of a Turkish military base in Qatar. Qatar has not publicly bowed to any of the demands.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2021, with the headline 'Gulf states sign deal to bring Qatar back to fold'. Subscribe