Resolution to Gulf crisis in the balance

Gulf summit to discuss boycott of Qatar by Saudi-led alliance, with thaw possibly in sight

The Gulf Cooperation Council is a bloc that includes boycotting countries Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, neutral Kuwait and Oman, and Qatar.
The Gulf Cooperation Council is a bloc that includes boycotting countries Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, neutral Kuwait and Oman, and Qatar.PHOTO: REUTERS

DOHA • The Gulf crisis which has pitted regional players against their neighbour Qatar could be moving closer to resolution as the key countries prepare to meet in Saudi Arabia tomorrow.

Riyadh led a coalition of countries in the Gulf and beyond in 2017 to cut ties with Doha over charges that it was too close to Teheran and was backing radical Islamist groups. Qatar denies the claims.

Washington has intensified pressure on the nations imposing what Qatar calls a "blockade" to resolve the crisis, insisting Gulf unity is necessary to isolate US rival Iran as the curtain falls on Mr Donald Trump's presidency.

The row will top the agenda at tomorrow's meeting of leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the north-western Saudi city of Al-Ula.

While Gulf sources say an agreement on further talks and limited confidence-building measures is ready, not all of the boycotting countries have yet signed up.

The Gulf Cooperation Council is a bloc comprising boycotting countries Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), neutral Kuwait and Oman, and Qatar.

After severing ties in June 2017, the Saudi-led alliance subsequently forced out Qatari expatriate residents, closed their airspace to Qatari aircraft and sealed their borders and ports, separating some mixed-nationality families.

The boycotting countries later issued a list of 13 demands to Doha, including the closure of pan-Arab satellite television channel Al Jazeera, undertakings on terror financing, and the shuttering of a Turkish military base in Qatar.

Doha has not publicly bowed to any of the demands.

The White House has ramped up its rhetoric against Teheran, having walked out of an international deal to rein in Iran's nuclear programme in 2018.

US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said last November that allowing Qatari planes to fly over Saudi Arabia via an "air bridge" was a priority for the Trump administration.

In return, analysts have suggested that Qatar could agree to tone down the coverage of Saudi Arabia by its media, including the Al Jazeera broadcaster.

"They will announce the interim deal with the emir most likely in attendance," said King's College London assistant professor Andreas Krieg, adding: "Bahrain has still not signed but all of the other blockading states have."

It has repeatedly clashed with Qatar over the enforcement of maritime boundaries, with several incidents in recent months that have seen the Qatari coastguard intercept Bahraini vessels.

It then flew four of its fighter jets over Qatar's territorial waters on Dec 9, Doha has alleged in a letter to the United Nations Security Council.

Bahrain is acting as "a proxy", said Professor Krieg. "While the UAE and Saudi feel pressure to fall in line with US pressure, they can use Bahrain as a disruptor to continuously show their discontent with Qatar."

Experts had warned that the UAE could be the spoiler for any regional reconciliation attempt, having heaped criticism on Qatar and its leadership since the spat erupted.

Abu Dhabi's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted on Dec 22 that "political and social atmospheres in the Gulf are looking to end the Qatar crisis", but he complained about Qatari media - a longstanding grievance in the boycotting countries.

It also remains unclear if Qatar's ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, will attend the summit in person, having skipped the gatherings since 2017.

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, has said that a resolution of the Gulf diplomatic crisis is in sight, with all governments involved on board and a final agreement expected soon.

Egypt and the UAE have since given their public support to the negotiations, although diplomatic sources say the UAE has been reluctant to compromise.

The potential thaw comes as Gulf states prepare for the incoming US administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2021, with the headline 'Resolution to Gulf crisis in the balance'. Subscribe