The Qatar Blockade Is Over, but the Gulf Crisis Lives On

Efforts at regional reconciliation have done nothing to address the core differences that divide Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan and Nayef Falah al-Hajraf, the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 5.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan and Nayef Falah al-Hajraf, the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 5. Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 5, representatives of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) congregated at a summit in the Saudi city of al-Ula. Officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar sought to end their rancorous three-and-a-half-year dispute over Qatar’s drift toward Iran and restore much-needed cohesion to the GCC, which also includes Kuwait and Oman. The GCC summit was a resounding success. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt lifted their blockade on Qatar and restored diplomatic relations with the country. Qatar also suspended its World Trade Organization case against the UAE’s economic isolation efforts.

Although the end of the Qatar blockade is a positive development, the Gulf crisis is far from over. The reconciliation at the GCC summit was triggered by fatigue from the blockade and by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s desire to rebrand his tarnished image with the new U.S. administration. It occurred without any compromises from Qatar on its support for Islamist movements or any display of contrition from Saudi Arabia or the UAE for the blockade’s destabilizing consequences for the Middle East

The focus on symbolism over substance at the GCC summit bodes poorly for the organization’s long-term cohesion. Mistrust between Qatar and the blockading states, an ongoing rivalry between the UAE and Qatar, sharp divergences in policy toward Iran and Turkey, and geostrategic contestation in Africa could reheat the Gulf crisis in the near future. These unresolved sources of friction within the GCC are likely to sharpen during Joe Biden’s presidency and present numerous challenges for his administration.

Although Qatar’s relationships with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have fluctuated since the mid-1990s, no previous crisis rivals the June 2017 blockade in severity. Unlike prior disputes, such as the withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar in March 2014, the recent blockade’s impacts were felt at both the elite and popular level. Hardships, such as the separation of mixed-citizenship Saudi-Qatari couples, created lasting societal rifts. Saudi and Emirati state-aligned media outlets relentlessly promoted the narrative that Qatar was a state sponsor of terrorism, while Qatari media outlets equated the UAE’s religious tolerance policies with support for idolatry. In turn, Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari publics have increasingly come to view each other as adversaries rather than as neighbors or friends.

Since the GCC summit was not preceded by any real effort to de-escalate tensions, these societal-level animosities could linger. On Dec. 22, Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash condemned Qatari media outlets for, he claimed, impeding Gulf reconciliation. On Dec. 24, Qatar filed a complaint to the United Nations about airspace violations from Bahraini fighter jets. Although recent polls conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 56 percent of Emiratis and 61 percent of Qataris supported an end to the GCC dispute, these figures may represent pragmatism and fatigue with the blockade more than an easing of core dissensions. Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani’s claim that Qatar did not “solve pending problems with Bahrain” after the GCC summit underscores the persistence of old divides.

The ongoing rivalry between the UAE and Qatar could derail any normalization in the Gulf. Since the 2011 Arab Spring protests, the UAE and Qatar have advanced competing visions for the region’s future. The UAE has condemned Islamist civil society movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and, with few exceptions, has supported the forces of counterrevolution against those of political pluralism. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain align with the UAE. Qatar enthusiastically supported the post-Arab Spring Muslim Brotherhood governments in Tunisia and Egypt and continues to encourage popular unrest in the Middle East. Turkey is the principal backer of Qatar’s vision

The UAE-Qatar rivalry is especially visible in Libya. The UAE militarily supports the Libyan National Army chieftain Khalifa Haftar, and Qatar backs the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord, which is aligned with Islamist militia groups. The UAE’s and Qatar’s conflicting ideologies spew through state-aligned media outlets, as both countries compete for hearts and minds in the Arab world. The absence of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the architect of the UAE’s foreign-policy doctrine, from the GCC summit suggests that the Gulf reconciliation process did not address this ideological gulf. This ensures that the GCC will continue to be divided in its responses to regional crises and perpetuate the unhealthy competition that culminated in the 2017 blockade.

Even if the Gulf monarchies silence societal-level objections and try to compartmentalize their ideological rifts, conflicting geostrategic priorities could stymie the path to a genuine reconciliation. The GCC remains divided especially on Iran and Turkey, which will impede intra-bloc cooperation on security issues. Although Qatar recalled its ambassador from Iran in January 2016, Iran’s provision of vital consumer goods to Qatar during the blockade has caused Doha to assume a more moderate stance toward Tehran. And Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman insists that the end of the blockade will not change Qatar’s relationship with Iran. These comments suggest that the GCC will remain bifurcated on Iran policy between a pro-engagement bloc consisting of Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait and a pro-isolation coalition comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain.

The GCC’s policy toward Turkey is similar. Due to Turkey’s operation of a military base in Qatar and Doha’s standing as the second largest foreign investor in the Turkish economy, the Turkey-Qatar strategic partnership will only tighten in the post-crisis period. Qatar’s alignment with Turkey is a source of friction with the UAE. On Oct. 10, Gargash called Turkey’s military presence in Qatar an “emergency” that destabilized the Gulf region. As Saudi Arabia is staking out a middle ground between the UAE’s anti-Turkish posturing and Qatar’s alignment with Turkey, the GCC could respond incoherently to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s escalations in the Eastern Mediterranean

Finally, the GCC’s reconciliation will not abate intense geostrategic competition elsewhere. Although countries that balance positive relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, such as Pakistan and Malaysia, benefit from the GCC’s reconciliation, the UAE-Qatar rivalry in Africa remains an unresolved source of friction. The UAE wishes to counter Qatar’s influence in Tunisia, which has grown due to large-scale Qatari investment in the Tunisian economy and Qatar-Tunisia diplomatic cooperation in Libya. Qatar has similarly capitalized on UAE-Algeria frictions, which were triggered by Abu Dhabi’s concerns about strengthening Turkey-Algeria relations and Algeria’s opposition to the UAE’s normalization with Israel.

The UAE and Qatar also vie for influence in Somalia. The UAE has close relations with the self-declared state of Somaliland, and Qatar aligns with Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the UAE-Qatar soft-power rivalry, as both countries use humanitarian aid to diversify their partnerships in Africa and will continue to do so in the months ahead.

As ideological conflicts, strategic rivalries, and deep-seated mistrust among the Gulf monarchies endure, the Biden administration should accept the fragility of the GCC’s reconciliation. This geopolitical reality presents both challenges and opportunities for U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. The United States should not view the GCC as a united security bloc. Regional strategies that depend on Gulf unity, such as the Middle East Strategic Alliance, should be shelved. U.S. officials should also carefully vet large-scale arms transfers to GCC countries, such as former President Donald Trump’s $23 billion arms deal with the UAE. These contracts could trigger reciprocal arms buildups that revive the Gulf crisis

Notwithstanding these risks, the new state of cold peace on the Arabian Peninsula can benefit U.S. interests. The end of the Qatar blockade will expand intra-GCC capital flows and give breathing room to GCC-level dialogue on economic diversification. This will create new investment opportunities for U.S. multinational corporations. In addition, Qatari Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwah al-Khater has confirmed Doha’s intention to mediate between the United States and Iran. As Qatar has returned to the GCC fold, it could act as a moderating influence on Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Biden seeks to revive. Finally, the Biden administration should capitalize on Saudi Arabia’s newfound pragmatism, which was on display at the GCC summit, to negotiate a swift resolution to the Yemeni civil war

In spite of the dramatic reconciliation between Qatar and the blockading countries, the Arabian Peninsula remains beset with internal discord. The Qatar blockade’s resounding failure could forestall another crisis of this scale. Nevertheless, episodic disagreements and smaller diplomatic rifts will persist throughout Biden’s first term as president. If the United States appeals to the pragmatic instincts of its Gulf partners and desists from enabling their most bellicose instincts, the sudden end to the Qatar blockade could expand U.S. influence in the Middle East even if it doesn’t bring lasting peace among the region’s powers.

Samuel Ramani is a nonresident fellow at the Gulf International Forum and a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. Twitter: @samramani2