The incoming Biden administration was presented with a most welcome development when it was announced on January 4 that an agreement has been reached to end the three-year rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. On November 27, the Financial Times carried a long report headlined “Saudi Arabia seeks to resolve Qatar crisis as a ‘gift’ to Joe Biden.” Essentially, the newly announced rapprochement has the potential to enable the Biden administration to accomplish major goals in the Gulf region as well as in the overall Middle East.
A good deal of credit for the breakthrough goes to Kuwait’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Nawaf. Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser al Sabah explained that “Based on Sheikh Nawaf’s proposal, it was agreed to open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar.” Al Sabah added that Sheikh Nawaf had spoken with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. According to AP, “The conversations ‘emphasized that everyone was keen on reunification,’ and would gather in Al-Ula to sign a statement that promises to ‘usher in a bright page of brotherly relations.’”
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By way of background, on June 5, 2017, the Arab quartet severed diplomatic relations with Doha and imposed a land, sea and air blockade based upon contested accusations that Qatar supported Islamist extremist groups. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also objected to Qatar’s relations with Iran. As a result, with some exceptions, notably to allow Qataris into Saudi Arabia to perform the Islamic hajj pilgrimage, Qatar’s only land border has remained closed, thus denying the import of products ranging from food to medical supplies to construction materials.
The rift with Qatar also resulted in the separation of families, especially those who had intermarried on both sides of the border. In addition, Saudi Arabia prohibited Qatari planes from flying over its airspace, which forced its national airline to take longer and more costly routes. It has been estimated that Qatar pays up to $100 million in annual fees to fly over Iran.
The Saudi decision to end the embargo is a major step forward, but it must be followed by additional initiatives by the other nations that had backed the boycott of Qatar. This was acknowledged by the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, who tweeted that while Abu Dhabi hopes to restore Gulf unity, “We have more work to do and we are in the right direction.”
Essentially, while ending the rift among the Gulf nations is important for the region, it also establishes new realities and opportunities for the Biden administration. It will enable the new administration to develop even closer relations with Qatar and set the tone for warmer than previously predicted relations with Saudi Arabia.
Beginning in 1992, Qatar has developed close military ties with the United States and is now the location of US Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center. Qatar hosts the strategically important Al Udeid Air Base, which is staffed by more than 10,000 American service personnel and strike force aircraft used in campaigns against the Islamic State. Improved US-Qatari relations will enable the two nations to build upon their efforts against terrorism. In fact, as the White House website points out, President Donald Trump thanked Emir Tamim in January 2018 for efforts “to counter terrorism and extremism in all its forms.” Washington is also grateful to Doha for hosting a Taliban mission, thereby facilitating the Afghan peace talks. The Biden administration may also work with Qatar in at least four additional areas.
Following up on the UAE and Bahrain reaching normalization deals with Israel sets the stage for Qatar to play a larger role in pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace. Qatar is quietly providing humanitarian support for Palestinians in Gaza, which helps in keeping that conflict more manageable and could enable Doha to serve as an intermediary to deal with the wider conflict.
Similarly, Qatar maintains good relations with both the United States and Iran. President-elect Biden and his top foreign policy officials have stated their hope that a new treaty can be worked out with Iran, one that builds on the nuclear pact negotiated by the Obama administration and then rejected by the Trump White House. Qatar is in a unique position to facilitate these diplomatic efforts. Significantly, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that he hopes reconciliation in the Gulf “contributes to the stability and political and economic development for all peoples of our region.”
Qatar has also expressed its support for a number of other top priorities enunciated by the Biden administration, including dealing aggressively with climate change and distributing vaccinations to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control. Improved Gulf relations can also help Saudi Arabia to build warmer ties with the Biden administration than might otherwise have been the case.
Joe Biden has called for a reevaluation of US relations with Riyadh during the Trump administration, which began when Donald Trump chose to visit Saudi Arabia as his first overseas destination as president and then extended to arms sales, a lax view of the war in Yemen and virtually excusing Saudi leaders for their role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In sum, while the final details of the deal that has been under discussion for several months is still in flux, it has the potential to shape a more positive agenda for the Biden administration.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.