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Gulf States’ Qatar Blockade Ends With a Whimper

After all the bluster and demands made by Gulf states in 2017, it appears Qatar has successfully waited out its larger neighbors.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
The Qatari side of the Abu Samrah border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on June 20, 2017.
The Qatari side of the Abu Samrah border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on June 20, 2017. Stringer/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Qatar joins Gulf Cooperation Council summit as blockade ends, voting concludes in U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, and the OPEC+ countries continue oil production talks.

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Qatar joins Gulf Cooperation Council summit as blockade ends, voting concludes in U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, and the OPEC+ countries continue oil production talks.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Gulf States to End Qatar Blockade

A formal agreement ending a years-long blockade of Qatar by its Middle East rivals led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates is expected to be signed today as the Gulf Cooperation Council meets in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia.

The land, sea, and air blockade of the gas-rich nation began in June 2017, when Gulf states accused Qatar of supporting terrorist groups and criticized its relationship with Iran. Qatar denies supporting terrorism but admits to supporting political Islamist causes such as the Muslim Brotherhood (a group Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates regard as a terrorist organization).

U.S. President Donald Trump enthusiastically supported the Saudi-led move initially, before swiftly reversing course and calling for dialogue. Qatar hosts roughly 10,000 U.S. troops at the al-Udeid airbase, a foothold seen as critical for operating anti-Islamic State missions.

Saving face. It’s difficult to see Qatar’s return to the Gulf fold as anything other than a face-saving measure for Saudi Arabia (the United Arab Emirates was reportedly against rapprochement). Qatar has not had to honor any of the 13 demands made by the Gulf states in 2017—which included shutting down broadcaster Al Jazeera and closing a Turkish military base—and instead has only agreed to drop lawsuits looking for compensation as a result of its isolation.

The Biden effect. The climbdown is part of Saudi Arabia’s desire to present a united Gulf front when it comes to Iran and position itself as a key partner for an incoming Biden administration keen to reassess the U.S. relationship with the kingdom. The agreement will immediately damage Iran financially, as it has charged Qatar roughly $100 million annually to use its airspace.

Iran’s enrichment. Biden’s Iran challenge became all the more demanding on Monday, when an Iranian government spokesman announced that the country had again begun enriching uranium to the 20 percent level, far in excess of limits imposed in the 2015 nuclear accord.

What We’re Following Today

Georgia runoff. Voters in Georgia will determine who controls the U.S. Senate today in runoff elections for the state’s two Senate seats, where Republican incumbents David Purdue and Kelly Loeffler face stiff competition from Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. If Democrats win both seats the Senate will be split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote.

Although polls close at 7 p.m. ET, the results could take days if the races are close. Three million voters have cast their ballots already in early voting, a figure representing roughly 60 percent of the total votes cast in November’s presidential election.

OPEC+ meets again. OPEC+ talks on monthly oil production levels enter a surprise second day today, as a decision over whether to increase production or hold levels steady divides the group.

Russia is said to be in favor of increasing the oil supply by 500,000 barrels a day in February, the same increase as in January, while Saudi Arabia and a majority of nations want to keep production at current levels, citing concerns over demand amid an uncertain economic future.

England locks down. England enters a strict nationwide lockdown today, as the number of coronavirus cases have exploded since the beginning of December and authorities move to protect the National Health Service from being overrun.

England’s lockdown measures will be in place until at least mid-February, while Scotland will be on lockdown until the end of January. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has blamed the new coronavirus variant—first discovered in the United Kingdom—for causing the dramatic increase in cases.

Keep an Eye On

Inauguration day countdown. U.S. President Donald Trump is unlikely to be in attendance as the President-elect assumes office on Jan. 20, if flight records are any indication. Scotland’s Sunday Post reports that officials at Prestwick Airport in Glasgow have been told to expect a U.S. military plane sometimes used by Trump on Jan. 19, suggesting the president will spend time at his Turnberry golf resort rather than attend Biden’s inauguration. The White House has yet to confirm Trump’s plans for inauguration day.

Travel in the COVID-era. In a signal of what travel in a pandemic world will look like, a group of U.S. airlines have called on the United States to drop travel restrictions banning citizens from Europe and elsewhere in favor of a pre-flight negative coronavirus test requirement. The airlines have backed a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) proposal to create a global program for testing travelers prior to entering U.S. borders. Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the White House coronavirus task force, is due to discuss the proposal during a meeting today.

South Korea-Iran tensions. South Korean authorities have called for the immediate release of a chemical tanker seized by Iran close to Oman’s waters on Monday. Seoul and Tehran are currently at odds over $7 billion in Iranian funds currently frozen in South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions, a matter to be discussed at an upcoming visit to Iran by South Korea’s deputy foreign minister. Iranian media said the tanker was impounded on a technicality and “was taken to shore for polluting the sea.”

Odds and Ends

Readers in Washington, D.C. eager for a dose of the coronavirus vaccine would do well to hang out near their local pharmacy. David MacMillan, a law student at Catholic University, managed to jump the vaccine queue on Friday when a pharmacist at his local grocery store offered the vaccine to him and a friend.

Under D.C. rules, vaccine doses at risk of expiration should be offered to anyone nearby if no health workers or first responders are available. An appointment no-show from a number of frontline workers gave MacMillan the opening. “She turned to us and was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got two doses of the vaccine and I’m going to have to throw them away if I don’t give them to somebody. We close in 10 minutes. Do you want the Moderna vaccine?” MacMillan told NBC.

MacMillan praised the pharmacist’s quick thinking. “Obviously the pharmacist is the hero here. She only had a short period of time and she wanted to make sure that as many people got vaccinated as possible. So props to her, absolutely,” he said.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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