Signs mount that Qatar embargo may end as mediation gears up

In this photo taken on June 23, 2017, cars are seen on the Qatari side of the Abu Samrah border crossing with Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: AFP

KUWAIT (BLOOMBERG) - Efforts to resolve the stand-off between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc are gathering momentum, with an upcoming football tournament in Doha helping to pave the way for a possible breakthrough, according to a Gulf official with knowledge of the matter.

The mediation is currently focusing on mending ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and will bring the United Arab Emirates on board later, the official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have agreed to take part in the Gulf football cup in Qatar in November, more than two years after severing diplomatic and economic ties with their gas-rich neighbour.

A senior Saudi official said in Washington last week that Qatar has also started taking steps to repair relations with its neighbours.

As Saudi Arabia prepares for the blockbuster share sale of oil giant Saudi Aramco, signs are emerging that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could be trying to resolve conflicts that have cast a shadow over the kingdom's political stability.

To that end, Prince Mohammed is also intensifying efforts to conclude the four-year war in Yemen, where the kingdom and its allies are battling Iranian-backed rebels.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia's main ally, has already pulled out most of its troops from Yemen as it seeks to ease tensions with Iran after a string of attacks on oil targets in the region raised fears of an all-out war.

The developments "signal that the stand-off is easing in intensity and that gradually contacts will become more regular and direct", said Mr Kristian Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

"The attacks on maritime traffic and oil facilities since May have refocused attention on real rather than manufactured threats to stability," he said.

The war in Yemen and the crisis with Qatar were widely seen as signs of a more aggressive foreign policy by Prince Mohammed and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.

The two countries, joined by Bahrain and Egypt, accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and being too close to their regional rival Iran, a charge Doha repeatedly denied. Previous attempts to resolve the crisis have failed despite mediation efforts by Kuwait and the United States.

Kuwait is playing a key role in the current push, the Gulf official said. The country, which has taken a more neutral stance in the feud, had urged Saudi Arabia to participate in the games as a goodwill gesture meant to dial down the frictions.

Shortly before the the announcement, Mr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an influential UAE academic, hinted a breakthrough was imminent.

"I bring good news to you about significant developments to resolve the Gulf dispute sooner than you think," he said on Twitter.

"Resolving the Gulf dispute is possible and imminent. In fact, it's happening sooner than you think through sports diplomacy."

The tournament's start was delayed by two days to accommodate the three new teams. It will now be held between Nov 26 and Dec 8.

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