By Navdeep Suri
The smile and the hug with which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) received the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Al Thani on 5 January spoke volumes of the shifting sands in the Gulf. Arriving for the 41st summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), this was the Qatari leader’s first visit to Saudi Arabia in three-and-a-half years. His arrival was preceded by an announcement from Nayef al Hajraf, the Kuwaiti Secretary General of the GCC, that Saudi Arabia had agreed to reopen its airspace as well as land and sea borders to Qatar. The presence of the Egyptian foreign minister at the summit and the relatively positive sounds emanating from Abu Dhabi suggest that a thaw is underway.
It was on 5 June 2017, when a hitherto dormant Arab Quartet comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt dropped the bombshell that they had decided to break diplomatic, trade and travel links with Qatar. I was among the diplomats called to the foreign office in Abu Dhabi the following day for a briefing on the provocations from Doha that had forced the Quartet to take this unprecedented step. In the initial days, there was lack of clarity on the ramifications of the embargo and a couple of days later, I found myself back in the foreign office to argue that the closure of UAE airspace for flights to Doha had complicated matters for Indian carriers flying between India and Qatar. The additional flying time meant that they had to curb the baggage allowance of passengers! The UAE side was courteous and said that they had no intention of affecting the interests of friendly countries like India. The following day, it was clarified that UAE airspace was only closed to Qatar Airways and that other airlines could continue to fly as before.
The Al Ula summit and developments preceding it have important implications for the Gulf, the larger West Asia region and India too.
First, it is clear that President Trump and his senior advisor Jared Kushner have achieved substantial success in altering the geopolitical map of the region. After the Abraham Accords that have led to normalisation of ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco and to Israeli PM Netanyahu’s ‘secret’ visit to Saudi Arabia on 22 November 2020, the GCC thaw is another feather in Kushner’s cap. In stark contrast to Trump’s flailing about the election results, Kushner has stayed focused on his objective. He visited Riyadh and Doha on 29 November to script the outlines of a deal, worked the phones to iron out the wrinkles and bring the reluctant Emiratis on board and was very much in attendance at Al Ula. The quiet diplomacy pursued by Kuwait also contributed to the outcome. As the Biden administration prepares to forge its policy towards Iran, it will be presented with a somewhat more united GCC as part of the new equation.
Second, the summit provides indications of the gradual evolution of MBS from the region’s enfant terrible to a more seasoned statesman who is trying to get a handle on the Yemen and Qatar disputes so that he can focus on the bigger picture. Fewer distractions in the neighbourhood will allow him greater latitude in implementing his ambitious agenda of social and economic reforms within the country. They also enable him to regain Saudi Arabia’s traditional primacy in the Muslim world by weakening the Turkey-Iran-Qatar axis which had been gaining some momentum. This might mean that Saudi Arabia’s own interest in ties with Israel will remain on the back burner for some more time.
Third, Qatar can claim some kind of moral victory for having withstood the pressure of unilateral sanctions brought upon it by the Quartet. In June 2017, the Quartet had specified a set of 13 conditions that Doha must meet for relations to return to normal. These included demands to curb diplomatic ties with Iran; end support to ‘terrorist groups’ like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah; shut down Al Jazeera and news outlets like Al Araby Al Jadeed and Middle East Eye; terminate Turkish military presence in Qatar, etc. As of now, there is no evidence that Qatar has conceded any of these demands, although it may make token gestures over the next few months — if only to improve the optics in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup that it will host in November-December 2022.
Fourth, the UAE would have reason to be unhappy over the turn of events precisely because Qatar has neither indicated a review of its ties with Iran and Turkey nor visibly backed down from the support that it has provided to various Islamist groups. For now, the Emiratis have found it prudent to go along with the US and Saudi priorities. This preserves the strategic nature of the close personal relationship between MBS and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. But it would be premature to expect an early rapprochement between the UAE and Qatar.
Within the UAE, the emirate of Dubai would eagerly wait for trade and travel restrictions to be removed. The embargo on Qatar had an adverse effect on Jebel Ali port and also impacted the substantial Qatari investments in Dubai. Any move towards normal business ties would improve the investment climate for Dubai and give a bit of a boost to the ambitious Dubai Expo 2020 that will now open in October 2021.
As the GCC states step up their vaccination drives and start to come out of the shadow of Covid-19, India would hope that the economic recovery facilitates the return of Indian expatriates to the Gulf. The resumption of normal trade ties would also help several major Indian and NRI-owned business groups which had seen their markets shrink as a result of the embargo. Ashok Leyland has a bus assembly facility in the UAE but had to lose out on export orders to Qatar. Dabur found itself in a similar situation since its ‘Made in UAE’ products could no longer be sold in Doha. The travel restrictions also made it difficult for many Dubai-based NRI-owned businesses to service their clients in Doha, with Muscat emerging as an alternative meeting point.
On the diplomatic front, India has been careful to nurture its ties with Doha, even as our relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia showed a dramatic upswing. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has recently visited Doha and Prime Minister Modi has spoken on the phone with Sheikh Tamim to encourage greater investments in India by the Qatar Investment Authority. India would also hope that influential Qatar-based media outlets like the Arabic channel of Al Jazeera tone down their anti-India rhetoric and stop looking at issues like Jammu and Kashmir from an overtly Islamist angle. Overall, any improvement in intra-GCC ties is a positive development from an Indian perspective, particularly if it is also accompanied by a moderation in Qatar’s religion-driven agendas.