When Qatar’s emir stepped off the plane near the historic site of AlUla on Tuesday for a regional summit, he was greeted with a hug by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — a clear sign of an end to three-and-a-half years of disunity and rancour within the ranks of western Gulf allies.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani arrived in the kingdom just hours after Riyadh had agreed to end its embargo of the small gas-rich state. Riyadh and its allies had accused Qatar — home to the US regional military headquarters — of sponsoring Islamist extremism, a claim that Doha denies.
The Saudi Arabia-Qatar rapprochement, brokered by mediator Kuwait in concert with the outgoing US administration, may mark the end of the Gulf’s worst crisis in decades. The dispute reverberated across the Arab world as other states felt compelled to pick sides. Doha, meanwhile, forged closer ties with Iran and Turkey as it was shunned by its neighbours.
Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, said on Monday the Gulf Cooperation Council summit would unify Gulf ranks “in solidarity to face the challenges our region is witnessing”.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s strongest ally in the embargo, gave a strong indication of its willingness to back a reconciliation.
Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said the summit would restore Gulf cohesion and assure security, stability and prosperity. “We have more work ahead of us — we are heading in the right direction,” he wrote on Twitter late on Monday.
But analysts warn it that it will take time to heal the deep wounds opened by the rift.
“You could say Qatar has won,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based professor of politics, even if the Saudi-UAE alliance will take some comfort from having shone a light on Qatar’s regional policies. “The cost of fighting was too high — there is a realisation now that this is the black sheep of the family and we just have to put up with it,” he added. “These have been the worst three-and-a-half years in the history of the GCC.”
The quartet leading the embargo issued a wide-ranging list of demands in 2017, including closing the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera media network, curbing relations with Iran and shutting a military base operated by Turkey.
None of these conditions have been met.
Analysts said Qatar, long considered a maverick by its neighbours, was unlikely to pivot from its longstanding policies of supporting popular movements in the Islamic world, including groups linked to Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Qatar could, nonetheless, make some concessions, the analysts added, such as limiting contacts with the Brotherhood and toning down the more aggressive aspects of Al Jazeera’s reporting. Al Jazeera has been critical of Saudi Arabia and UAE attempts to undermine democratic forces in the Arab world.
A person briefed on the mediation process said that after Saudi Arabia lifted its air, land and sea embargo, Doha was expected to freeze state-related legal cases launched against its rivals at institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.
The impetus to find a permanent resolution is significant.
The rift undermined economic cohesion in the Gulf, disrupting trade and investment flows, separating families and putting up barriers against regional business activity.
In the wake of the embargo, Qatar was forced to repatriate more than $20bn from overseas deposits to shore up its financial system. The import-dependent nation formed new trading routes, which caused it to deepen trade ties with Iran and depend on the Islamic republic’s airspace.
Rory Fyfe of Mena Advisors, a consultancy, says while reconciliation boosts regional harmony, the economic benefits are “marginal” as Qatar is unlikely to revert to previous Saudi and UAE networks that would leave it vulnerable to another embargo.
Still, businesses in Dubai, which had previously acted as an important conduit to Doha and attracted high-spending Qatari visitors, are hopeful for gains. “On a commercial basis, we will see gains in the UAE once those restrictions are lifted, particularly in Dubai,” said Taufiq Rahim, a senior fellow at New America, a think-tank.
The impact of the embargo went beyond the economy. Doha’s closer relations with Iran also undermined the Trump administration’s efforts to build an Arab coalition against Tehran as the US ramped up sanctions and sought to isolate the republic.
The boycott also cemented Qatar’s strategic partnership with Turkey, which accelerated the deployment of troops to a base in Doha in a muscular show of support for the Gulf state.
Qatar’s relations with Turkey, which welcomed the detente and said that it hoped for a “comprehensive and lasting” settlement, could yet be a stumbling block in negotiations to finalise a definitive end to the spat.
Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia has expressed concerns about Turkey’s role in regional affairs, even launching an informal boycott of Turkish goods last year. The schism has been most apparent in Libya, where the UAE and Turkey back rival proxies in a civil war.
Doha’s relations with Ankara have been bolstered by the GCC dispute, said Tarik Yousef, director of Brookings Doha Center, a think-tank.
“Their robust military co-operation provides the answer to a host of security concerns which are to persist after a resolution, including the ongoing crisis in Libya,” he said. “On the other hand, Ankara has a deep interest in normalising relations with Riyadh — and Qatar can play an effective role in mediating growing bilateral tensions between the two countries.”
Ultimately, said one person briefed on the UAE’s thinking, the boycott had run its course. “People will move on.”
Additional reporting by Andrew England in London and Laura Pitel in Ankara