Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies are resisting a U.S. push to open their airspace to Qatar and end the natural-gas powerhouse’s heavy reliance on Iran’s skies, according to officials familiar with the contacts.
They figure they stand a better chance of extracting bigger concessions from Qatar, which they’ve been boycotting for nearly three years, the closer it gets to hosting the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament, according to one official familiar with the matter. Like three others, the official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.
Washington, the people said, intensified its efforts to mend the Gulf rift after last year’s attacks on energy interests in the Persian Gulf, which briefly disrupted Saudi oil production and raised the threat of open conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Opening airspace has been a key point on the agenda of regular meetings between U.S. and Saudi officials in Washington and the Gulf, even as broader reconciliation overtures between Arab countries have stalled.
Qatar has depended on Iranian skies at great cost ever since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and trade ties in June 2017, forcing it to cut some flights and reroute others. State-run Qatar Airways’ fuel bill was a key driver of the company’s $637 million loss during the fiscal year that ended in March 2019.
Washington sees airspace as a possible way to begin a broader detente, the officials said, though it’s not clear whether this would mean restarting direct flights to Doha or simply allowing flyovers.
A spokesman for Qatar’s government said it appreciates “the United States’ ongoing efforts to lift the airspace blockade,” adding that the Saudi-led bloc was attempting to “exploit the sensitive geopolitical situation in the region for shortsighted gains.”
Saudi Arabia’s Center for International Communication didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment and officials at the U.S. State Department didn’t reply to questions.
If the feuding Gulf rulers do want to sell a solution to their public, they don’t need to pretend to be best friends or to have a unified foreign policy, said Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East analyst. They can open up travel opportunities again so people within the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council can see their families, and then start to think about labor mobility, she added.
“Just look at a map, and you can see that being unable to travel, trade or fly through Saudi territory is particularly problematic for the tiny peninsula of Qatar,” Kinninmont said.
Yet for the boycotting nations, in particular the U.A.E., the time is not ripe to hand Qatar such a major victory.
Qatar wants to use the World Cup- the world’s most-watched sports event- to showcase itself as a leading destination, and is gearing up to welcome more than 1 million visitors for the monthlong tournament beginning in November 2022. Under normal circumstances, it would expect a large proportion of spectators to come from the Middle East, but that would be complicated if there are still no direct flights from three countries in the region.
Saudi Arabia sees potential in exploiting this to try to wrest bigger compromises from Doha, one of the officials familiar with the discussions said.
“The view in Saudi Arabia is that it is very difficult to have the World Cup with Qatar in isolation,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group consultancy.
Amid the standoff and ongoing recriminations on various topics, a small bit of progress peeked through Monday, with the announcement that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are resuming postal services to Qatar, following a similar move by the U.A.E. earlier this month.
The boycotting countries accuse Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, of meddling in their internal affairs and supporting hard-line Islamist groups, which Doha denies. They are also wary of Qatar’s relations with Iran, with whom it shares the world’s largest gas field.
To restore relations, the boycotting countries have demanded Qatar stop supporting individuals and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that they see as a regional threat, and shut down Qatar’s state-backed global TV station Al-Jazeera, which has been critical of rulers and policies in other Gulf countries. They’ve also insisted that Doha refrain from “interfering in the internal affairs of states.”
Shortly after the feud began, Qatar lodged a case against the boycotting countries with the United Nations’ aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization, claiming they’d broken a 1944 convention governing international airspace. One of the people familiar with the efforts to reopen airspace to Qatar said Doha would be open to dropping the case if reassured that skies wouldn’t be snapped shut again.
Attacks on tankers in the Gulf and a giant Saudi oil facility lent a new urgency to ending the rift and forming a united front against Iran, which the U.S. blamed for the assaults over Tehran’s denials. Washington, which is pushing Gulf states for greater security cooperation to confront regional challenges, encouraged Qatar’s foreign minister to meet with his Saudi counterpart late last year, raising hopes of progress as it was the highest-level meeting since the row began.
Other signs of detente followed, but efforts lost momentum. When Qatar’s prime minister attended a GCC summit in December instead of the emir, it was seen as a missed opportunity for reconciliation.
Riyadh, which had shown more openness toward mending fences than the U.A.E., found Qatar wasn’t focused on addressing the group’s concerns, one of the people briefed on the contacts said. Attacks in the opposing countries’ media outlets restarted after the meeting, further setting back the overtures, a second person added.
“There was a real effort to go for a grand bargain that would lead to a swift normalization of ties,” Kamel said, but major sticking points were too hard to overcome.
“We are not back at zero,” he said. “We are back at incremental improvements.”
(Updates with information about Qatar Airways losses in fourth paragraph.)
–With assistance from Glen Carey.