Steven Sahiounie, journalist and political commentator
The Persian Gulf monarchies have met today at the 41st annual six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit held at Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. This marks the first step toward ending a three-year diplomatic crisis that divided US defense partners.
“The 41st summit marks the beginning of a new chapter for the GCC as it enters its fifth decade,” the secretary-general of the GCC, Nayef Falah al-Hajraf, said.
Qatar, which hosts a major base for the US military’s Central Command, was under a naval, air and land blockade imposed in June 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt. The quartet accused Qatar of supporting terrorist groups and of close ties with Iran.
Kuwait, which had been mediating throughout the dispute, emphasized that everyone was keen on reunification, and would gather in Al-Ula to sign a statement that promises to usher in a new era of brotherly relations.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the summit will be “inclusive,” leading the states toward “reunification and solidarity in facing the challenges of our region.”
Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim was warmly embraced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman upon arrival in Al-Ula, though it was unclear what concessions Qatar had made.
Egypt’s president was invited to the summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry attended the GCC summit and says Egypt will open its airspace with Qatar pending the fulfillment of demands.
This is a major milestone towards resolving the Gulf crisis, but the path to full reconciliation lies ahead. The dispute between UAE and Qatar has been deepest, with the two at sharp ideological odds.
Qatar has emerged as a more resilient country since the blockade was imposed, while the Qataris have managed to live with the blockade and they discovered more efficient ways of sustaining their economy.
“We stress the importance of strengthening all areas of Gulf cooperation … by strengthening and supporting joint action to contribute to restoring economic recovery and growth and returning to normal life to achieve sustainable development goals after the pandemic,” the GCC secretary-general al-Hajraf said.
Coalition against Iran
Jared Kushner, President Trump’s advisor, and son-in-law visited the kingdom and Qatar recently in a final push by the administration to secure a diplomatic breakthrough.
The breakthrough reconciliation signed at the summit in the presence of Jared Kushner, Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz, and Brian Hook, a special State Department adviser, is the latest in a series of Middle East deals sought by Trump, with the others involving Israel and Arab states, and all are aimed at building a united front against Iran.
Trump intensified pressure on the four blockading nations to resolve the crisis with Qatar while insisting Persian Gulf unity is necessary to isolate Iran. Some military experts have lately wondered if Trump was planning a military attack on Iran in the last days in office.
The core concerns are Qatar’s close relations with Turkey and Iran have undermined regional security. Egypt and the UAE view Qatar and Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood as a security threat and have deemed the group a terrorist organization. Trump has also questioned the Muslim Brotherhood, and Senator Ted Cruz introduced a Congressional bill to name the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are primarily concerned with Qatar’s close ties with regional foe Iran.
Ahmed Hafez, the spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, said last week that Cairo supports efforts to reach a resolution that respects “non-interference in internal affairs” in a reference to Qatar’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The conflict in Libya is also a contentious issue, with Egypt and the UAE supporting militias fighting a Tripoli-based bloc backed by Turkey and Qatar, which is a Muslim Brotherhood-led interim government.
Qatar hosts the region’s largest US military base, Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE host US troops.
The incoming Biden administration is expected to take a firmer stance toward Saudi Arabia, and normalization with Qatar could allow Saudi Arabia to find compromises with the Biden administration on its war in Yemen and proposed US re-engagement with Iran.
The Biden administration comes to power on January 20, and the Gulf states need to be able to finalize a strategy on how to approach the Iran issue, which they will need to discuss with the new US President.
Saudi Arabia was pushing for the deal with Qatar to show President-elect Biden that Riyadh is open to dialogue, as Biden has vowed to take a harder line with the kingdom over its human rights record and the Yemen war.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Monday that Iran’s resumption of 20% uranium enrichment was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and that Israel would never allow Tehran to build them.
Israel was responding to Iran’s announcement that its scientists have resumed enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. The exchange is increasing tensions just two weeks before Biden is set to take office.
The increased enrichment is seen as a possible step toward achieving weapons-grade levels of uranium; however, Iran has vowed to never make a nuclear bomb. Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed not to go above four percent, but Trump withdrew from the deal. The Iranian announcement is a way to put pressure on the incoming Biden administration to return to the Iran nuclear deal.
Al Jazeera TV
The quartet had set Qatar 13 demands, including closing Al Jazeera TV, shuttering a Turkish base, cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood, and downgrading ties with Iran.
Saudi Arabia has been troubled by the ongoing Al Jazeera investigations into the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 and went into self-imposed exile. He later wrote newspaper articles critical of the crown prince, and the king of Saudi Arabia.
On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul but was never seen again. Amid news reports claiming that he had been killed and dismembered inside, by November 16, 2018, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had concluded that Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.
Al Jazeera’s journalist, Mahmoud Hussein, has been held in an Egyptian prison under arbitrary and illegal detention for four years without charge. His incarceration has been condemned by international rights groups, media freedom organizations, and the United Nations. Hussein was accused of “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news to spread chaos.”
Steven Sahiounie is an award-winning journalist