It would be quite an oversized definition to describe the agreement reached between Qatar and its neighbors as “peace.” It is more accurate to say that the parties have put their swords back in their scabbards out of necessity. While the leaders are embracing, they want us to ignore the ongoing stumbling down below.
If one takes a look at the difference between the list of 13 conditions to improve the relations that were severed on June 5, 2017 and what is in the breakthrough agreement, one cannot say Qatar has repented. Those conditions included Qatar severing ties with Iran, closing the Turkish military base, locking down Al Jazeera and stopping support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to the agreement reached at the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the city of Al-Ula on Jan. 5; the sea, land and air blockade to Qatar has been lifted while Doha withdrew its lawsuits against its neighbors. This agreement will have repercussions involving other expectations but the process will show us what will happen to what extent.
While Kuwait attended the summit at the leadership level, other countries sent their prime ministers or crown princes. King Salman delegated the hosting duty to his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who directs the foreign politics of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not attend. The lower-level attendances did cast a shadow over the strength of the agreement.
One of the reasons that angered Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain is that Qatar’s hostility against Iran was hesitant, that it has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in such a way that disturbed the monarchies, that Al-Jazeera has turned into the mouthpiece of political Islamists and militarism during the Arab revolts, and the fact that it has opened doors to Turkey's dreams of returning to the Ottoman geography. Apart from these reasons, there is no strategic chaos that would prompt the parties to become enemies, after all, they are all “passionate” partners of American interests.
However, this blockade did not particularly put Qatar on the right track. On one hand, Sheikh Tamim succeeded in pleasing the Americans, and on the other hand, it was observed that the fury of the neighbors was not adequate for the process. On the contrary, the blockade gave some undesired results:
- Turkey, which stood against the axis formed by the Gulf trio plus Egypt, since the initial tension in 2014, has best made use of the neighborhood fight for its own expansion strategy. The military base opened in Qatar in 2015 is the fruit of this. The economic dimensions of the friendship between Tamim and Erdoğan are also well-known.
- Iran, which they have attributed as the enemy, also made good use of the crisis. In 2017, when the air, land and sea blockade was imposed, Iran began food delivery to Doha within six days. Next, the economy ministers of Turkey, Qatar and Iran met twice in Tehran and displayed their partnership. Relationships have come a long way than ever before. Due to the U.S. sanctions declared in 2018, Air France and British Airways stopped flying to Iran, while Qatar Airways added new flights to Tehran.
Now, while adversaries are shaking hands, there is no sign that those chapters Doha has opened with Turkey and Iran will immediately be closed or whether there will be a downsizing in relations. If there has been a secret deal, then it is a different case. If we leave Turkey aside, it is not realistic to expect that Qatar will fully confront Iran, a country it shares a natural gas basin. Besides, even the UAE is trying to de-escalate tensions with Iran behind closed doors.
Qatar's relations with its neighbors cannot be defined, from past to present, as absolute hostility or absolute friendship. Qatar is following a policy favoring Tehran because it is sharing South Pars/North Dome natural gas reservoirs with Iran. This does not constitute any harm to the GCC policies. Qatar did not see any harm in joining the Peninsula Shield in 2011, which intervened in Bahrain. It also joined the first phase of the “Determination Storm” operation against Yemen.
It must have been a twist of fate that Qatar, which is at odds with Iran in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, is punished for its secret ties to Iran! If the topic is open or secret relations with Iran, the first place to look is perhaps the Dubai leg of the UAE. What severed relationship with its GCC partners in 2014 was Qatar’s protection of the Muslim Brotherhood following the 2013 coup in Egypt and that Al-Jazeera pictured the Saud-Emirate axis as the financier of the coup. The second blow to the relations was a leaked text from Qatar News Agency posted in 2017. According to the text, Sheikh Tamim, at the graduation ceremony at Al Udeid Air Base, criticized Trump's call for Muslim countries to unite against Iran, and said “There is no point in being hostile to Iran.” The Sheik stated that Trump was in trouble in his own country and implied that his political life would not be long. He said the Al Udeid Base was protecting Qatar from certain neighboring countries. He noted that their relations with Israel were good. He also responded to those accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism: “No one has the right to accuse us of terrorism because they have blacklisted the Muslim Brothers as terrorists or because they have rejected resistance movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah.”
Indeed, Doha said the text was fake and the website was hacked, it was not able to prevent the sanctions.
Qatari-Iranian relations are a chaos where hostilities and co-operations trigger each other. Qatar saw no harm in giving the Al Sailiya Base for CENTCOM, which targets Iran, in 2002 and Al Udeid Base in 2009. As Tamim pointed out in his speech that he later denied, Qatar also sees this base as a guarantee against its neighbors. Qatar was involved in UN sanctions against Iran in 2006. In the same year, when Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran was raided by demonstrators, Qatar supported the GCC's decision to cut ties with Iran.
In 2010, however, Qatar was as close to Iran as to strike a defense deal for counterterrorism and maritime security. Iran, in return, stood by Qatar against Bahrain in the dispute over the Fasht al-Dibel reefs.
- The Saudis tried to take matters into their own hands when the Obama administration supported the overthrow of dictators friendly to the Gulf and also opted to start talks with Tehran. They become engaged in the processes in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen with this spite.
In Bahrain, they destroyed the possibility of the Shiite majority to come to power with the Peninsula Shield. When they wanted to crown this success in Yemen, they failed. Their attempts to establish a “Sunni Islam Army” also failed. While the fight with Qatar damaged the integrity of the GCC; as if that was not enough, in Yemen, the UAE played a trick on the Saudis. While the UAE helped the separatists in the south, the war with the Houthis, backed by Iran, was left to the Saudis. In other words, their attempts to downgrade Iran did not succeed. They need to reshuffle the cards.
- Trump's targeting of Iran provided relief within this axis, but this period has also come to an end. Now while the Gulf is fighting among themselves, while Biden is preparing to come up with disturbing files such as “a fresh start with Tehran,” polishing the image of unity has become very important.
While the Saudis and the Emirates were coming down on Qatar, they were able to impress Trump. Trump, who at first gave the green-light to the punishment of the Al-Thani dynasty, somewhat prevented any further proceedings. One of the reasons that made Trump reconsider the situation was the strategic importance of the base, and the other was the deterioration of the unified stand in the Gulf in the new strategy against Iran. Besides, Doha was a useful tool in negotiating with the Taliban and Hamas. Even if Qatar supported Hamas, it was not an actor having problems with Israel. After all, Israel destroys Gaza and Qatar rebuilds it.
And, of course, Qatar is a huge arms customer. When Trump accused Qatar, which is hosting 11,000 American troops, of being the “sponsor of terrorism,” Doha desperately ordered $12 billion worth of F-15s. This way, Trump sold tons of weapons to both sides.
When Trump pondered on his plans to block Iran, the “Deal of the Century” and the normalization of relations of Arabs with Israel, he understood how indispensable the monolithic stance in the Gulf was. In the agreement with Qatar, the steady mediation of Kuwait and Oman has been a huge factor but just as important and compelling was that Trump put his son-in-law Jared Kushner in charge.
- The fact that all of these developments are happening during Trump's outgoing stage is a problem. It can easily be argued that the agreement in the Gulf was aimed at sabotaging the Biden era. The Gulf lords are very uncomfortable with Biden's intention to return to the nuclear deal with Iran. If an image of unity is drawn in the Gulf until Biden takes office, it is being calculated that they would be the side who has been listened to in Washington. Mohammed bin Salman, who physically embraced Sheikh Tamim at the airport without thinking of coronavirus restrictions, did send a constructive message to Washington. He is actually concerned that he would not find the friendly atmosphere he had with Trump during the Biden administration. He is the crown prince who Trump referred to as having “saved his ass” when he blocked the sanctions in the Congress regarding the Khashoggi murder.
Trump, too, is certainly pushing his capacity not to leave Biden any room for maneuver; but at the same time leave an Arab image united under common drives. There are, of course, Arab writers who speculate this scenario as “They are preparing to strike Iran.”
Indeed, neither Iran nor Turkey will undermine this agreement. They both expressed their satisfaction. Tehran has been congratulating, but it knows very well that the issue is about them. How could it not? Iran was the “only threat” Mohammed bin Salman mentioned in his greeting speech. Kushner's presence is already adequate to put the summit within this framework. That is the reason Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave a message that touched them on their sore spot:
“Congratulations to Qatar for the success of its brave resistance to pressure and extortion. To our other Arab neighbors: Iran is neither an enemy nor threat. Enough scapegoating—especially with your reckless patron on his way out.”
Ankara, on the other hand, may be hoping to enter through the door itself which was opened for Qatar. Current circumstances are forcing it. The axis fight opened channels of influence for Erdoğan, but the end has come in this journey. It is difficult to shake hands with the UAE because of the fight in Libya but Erdoğan is more than ready to hug Saudi King Salman. Erdoğan is putting the King in a separate place than his son, who has been dubbed “Father of the Saw” because of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi murder. The Crown Prince still stands out as the unpleasant background noise.
This could turn into a minor obstacle as Biden comes marching in. However, the issue is bigger than that. Tamim may shift into a stance of favoring its neighbors by taking certain steps such as making his support of the Muslim Brotherhood less visible and fine tuning the broadcast of Al Jazeera. But, would Erdoğan give up his expansionist and interventionist stance? This is a much bigger obstacle for this new chapter than the Crown Prince.