The highlight of a one-day annual summit of leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states held last week was undoubtedly the healing of the three-and-half year rift between Qatar and its estranged neighbors, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Egypt. At their summit on Tuesday 5 January, in the scenic Al-Ula governorate of Saudi Arabia, the leaders signed a ‘solidarity and stability’ agreement towards ending the diplomatic squabble that had raised serious questions on unity and solidarity among GCC states, and the long-term stability of this geo-politically sensitive area.
The solidarity and stability agreement paved the way for the six leaders to sign the Al-Ula Declaration at the end of their summit. The comprehensive communique issued after the summit underscored the need for greater cohesion among the GCC states to tackle the many challenges confronting the region, including the economy, the ongoing pandemic and more importantly the solidarity, security and stability of the GCC.
In the days leading up the summit there were indications of an impending rapprochement between the two sides. Early signs of a reconciliation emerged on Monday, with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saying during an appearance on state-run news agency that the GCC summit will be “inclusive”, and that it could lead the states toward “reunification and solidarity in facing the challenges of our region”.
Reiterating the sentiment expressed by the Saudi Crown Prince, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, an outspoken critic of Qatar during the conflict, described the upcoming summit as “historic”. In his Twitter post, the minister said the upcoming summit “would restore our Gulf cohesion and ensure that security, stability and prosperity is our top priority.”
There were other signs of a thaw in relations in late December when Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani reportedly responded favorably to a formal invitation from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to attend the 41st GCC Summit in Saudi, which was personally handed over to him by GCC Secretary-General Dr. Nayef bin Falah al-Hajraf.
Despite these initial indications, it was the announcement of a detente in relations between the two sides by the Foreign Minister of Kuwait Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah that drew immediate attention and was widely circulated on regional and international media. Speaking on state TV on Monday, Dr. Ahmad Nasser said: “Based on His HIghness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah’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, starting from this evening.”
Ever since his appointment as the country’s foreign minister in December 2019, Dr. Ahmad Al-Nasser had exerted persistent endeavors shuttling between Doha, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Cairo in a bid to bridge differences between the two sides. His determination to achieve a positive outcome to the rift were clearly guided by previous efforts of the late Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who since the start of the conflict in 2017 had worked tirelessly to bring about a reconciliation between the brotherly states.
In recognition of his efforts and services to the country, Dr. Ahmad Nasser was conferred with Order of Kuwait of the First Class by His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. In a ceremony held at the Bayan Palace on 6 January, His Highness the Amir presented the award and commended the foreign minister’s relentless efforts, “traveling from country to country, attending official functions” to represent Kuwait, and lauded the minister’s sacrifice, which earned him the bestowed Order of Kuwait. On his part, Sheikh Dr. Ahmad expressed gratitude towards His Highness the Amir and his leadership, affirming that he was honored to serve Kuwait and its people.
Notwithstanding the early revelation by Dr. Ahmad Al-Nasser, the official announcement of the accord came only on Tuesday at the GCC Summit venue in Al-Ula with Crown Prince Salman’s statement that the Gulf leaders had signed a “solidarity and stability” agreement towards ending the diplomatic rift with Qatar at their summit. He added that a breakthrough in the dispute with Qatar had led to the joint Al-Ula statement that would be signed at the summit.
Stressing that the Al-Ula statement, “affirms our Gulf, Arab and Islamic solidarity and stability”, the Crown Prince said, “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.”
Despite the fine details of the ‘solidarity and security’ agreement not being released, there was palpable relief on GCC streets that the agreement would soon bring to an end more than 40 months of embitteredness between the neighboring states. The rift within the six-nation bloc had not only affected political, commercial and trade interests between the two sides, it also impacted the social fabric of historical familial and tribal bonds that have cemented relations between people of the region for centuries.
It was in June 2017 that Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE severed diplomatic, commercial and trade ties with Qatar and imposed a drastic land, air and sea boycott that severely hindered travel to and from the peninsular state. The Saudi-led bloc alleged that Qatar undermined GCC unity, supported ‘terrorist groups’ and that it was moving closer to arch-foe Iran. The accusations were vehemently denied by Qatar, which in turn accused its immediate neighbors and Egypt of a vicious blockage and arm-twisting that infringed on its sovereignty.
Although the reconciliation agreement was the high-point of the leaders’ gathering in Saudi, there was no mention of the ‘solidarity and security agreement’ nor any clarification on the terms and conditions of the rapprochement in the communique signed at the end of the summit. Apparently discussions were still going on even after the summit to provide mutual reassurances and shore up trust deficits between the two sides. In the end, the Al-Ula Statement signed by the six leaders only stated their commitment to the unity of the GCC.
The communique states: “The Supreme Council highlighted its interest in strengthening and promoting the cohesion of the GCC, as well as the unity among its members, which are linked by special relationships and common traditions based on the Islamic faith and Arab culture. The GCC is also linked by a shared destiny and a single purpose, which unites their people together, and a desire to achieve more peace, integration and interdependence between them in all fields.”
Any mention of the political feud that distanced the two sides for too long was limited to thanking the late Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah for his sincere efforts to “heal the rift between member states”. The statement also expressed its “appreciation and gratitude for the efforts of Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, as well as the United States, in this regard”.
The communique added that the “Supreme Council welcomed the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration, which aims to strengthen the unity and solidarity between the member states, restore the normal joint Gulf actions, and preserve the security and stability of the region.” It is noteworthy that more space in the final statement was dedicated to long-standing tense relations with regional rival Iran, the Yemen crisis, the health issues arising from the ongoing pandemic, and other regional and international issues than to the solidarity and security agreement that was agreed upon by the leaders.
Speaking at a media briefing after the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated that Saudi Arabia and its three Arab allies agreed to restore full ties with Qatar following the signing of the solidarity and stability agreement. On the streets of Doha, Dubai, and elsewhere the announcement drew muted response, with some cautiously welcoming the agreement but many voicing concerns about the future. There is obviously relief at the opening of the borders, as it would facilitate movement of families and the visiting of relatives, who during the blockade had to resort to online video-conferencing or arrange clandestine meetings in Kuwait, Oman, or other countries.
Without further details or clarification being provided on the ‘solidarity and security’ agreement, rumors, assumptions and speculations about the deal have been rife. Critics point out that the contentious issue was never about border closures or trade and travel; the boycott or blockade (depending on which side is arguing the case) was the outcome and not the cause of the feud between the two sides. The underlying reasons behind the rift still remain unaddressed, or at least it appears unaddressed to the general public.
Everyone agrees that solidarity, unity and security among Gulf states are of paramount importance. However, there are circumspect comments from some quarters pointing out that the present patching up appears similar to the November 2014 peace deal, which the same feuding parties signed over much of the same grievances that continue to ranckle the two sides today. They note that papering over differences without a permanent solution to the core issues could only result in a replay of the current situation further down the road.
In the UAE, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told an online media gathering that the states boycotting Qatar could resume travel and trade links with Qatar within a week, including practical measures to facilitate airlines, shipping and trade. However, he added, other issues such as restoring full diplomatic relations would take time with differences remaining, including over geopolitical issues. The minister said, “Some issues are easier to fix and some others will take a longer time. We have a very good start but we have issues with rebuilding trust.”
For his part, the Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani has been quoted in Western media as saying that Doha had agreed to suspend legal cases related to the boycott and cooperate on counterterrorism and “transnational security”, but that the deal would not affect his country’s relationship with Iran and Turkey, which were its own sovereign matters and for Doha to decide.
In a joint press conference with GCC Secretary-General Dr. Nayef Al-Hajraf, at the end of the summit, the Saudi foreign minister Prince Farhan Al Saud said signing of the final communique “signals the start of a new chapter in pan-Gulf relations and a full restoration of diplomatic ties between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, to serve the countries’ interests and support the region’s stability.” He emphasized that the key guarantee for implementing this declaration is the real will of the countries to solve this crisis and reach an actual cohesion that boosts the region’s stability and addresses mutual challenges.”