June 5 marks four years since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar and five months since the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia, which marked the end of the deepest rift in the history of the organisation. The way the 43-month blockade started and the way it ended reflect significant broader changes in the regional and international outlook since 2017.
Therefore, it is important to look into what lessons have been learned from the past four years, whether the agreement signed at Al-Ula is durable, and how the process of reconciliation is proceeding.
From beginning to end, the blockade of Qatar was a textbook study of a regional crisis in the age of US President Donald Trump and the weakening of the rules-based international order. What amounted to a power play designed to isolate Qatar politically and economically began with the hacking of the Qatar News Agency and the planting of a fake news story purporting to report incendiary comments by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. This made the chain of events that followed a real-world manifestation of a crisis rooted in the notion of “alternative facts” – a term coined by Trump’s then senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, in January 2017.
The blockade also followed a pattern of outreach to the incoming Trump administration by Emirati and Saudi officials that began with a visit by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to New York to meet with members of the transition team in December 2016. This outreach culminated in Trump making his first presidential overseas trip to Riyadh in May 2017. This period included a series of interactions seemingly intent on appealing to the transactional and unconventional style of decision-making in the White House by creating and amplifying an influence campaign portraying Qatar as a negative actor in regional affairs.
This approach appeared to pay off as Trump shocked observers, including, by all accounts, his secretaries of state and defence, by initially supporting the blockade and appearing to link the decision to move against Qatar to conversations he had held in Riyadh two weeks before. Trump’s statement threatened to upend the backbone of Qatar’s security and defence partnerships with the US and encourage hopes in blockading capitals that Trump’s transactional approach might lead him to take sides in the dispute.
Seen in retrospect, the assumption that the rest of the US government would follow the White House in taking sides was mistaken, and it was pushback from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis, and US military leaders that ultimately led Trump to change his stance.
It is unclear why officials in the blockading states, including some who were extremely well-versed in US politics, would have thought otherwise. One possibility is that the Trump administration, which entered office loudly proclaiming its intent to do things its own way regardless of the constraint of norms and settled procedure, simply encouraged friends and adversaries alike to believe that it meant what it said.
By September 2017, the blockade had settled into a holding pattern that lasted for the remainder of Trump’s turbulent presidency. A visit to the White House that month by Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah was notable for Emir Sabah’s comment that “what’s important is that we have stopped military action”, but Kuwaiti and US attempts to mediate found it stubbornly difficult to break the impasse. On at least two occasions, in December 2019 and July 2020, hopes for a breakthrough in Saudi-Qatari relations were dashed, illustrating the difficulty of resolving a dispute that involved five parties rather than just two.
What led to a breakthrough in Al-Ula in January 2021 was a series of developments, both regionally and internationally, in 2019 and 2020. Whereas, for Qatar, it was Trump’s tweets in support of the blockade in June 2017 which (temporarily) brought into question the reliability of the US partnership, for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi their “moment of truth” came between May and September 2019. The failure of the Trump administration to respond to the series of attacks on maritime and energy targets in and around Saudi Arabia and the UAE culminated in Trump publicly distinguishing between US and Saudi interests in the aftermath of the missile and drone attacks against Saudi oil facilities.
The 2019 attacks, linked to Iran, punctured the regional assertiveness of Saudi and Emirati policymaking as well as the assumption, particularly when it came to anything to do with Iran, that their interests and US interests were effectively one and the same. Emirati and Saudi leaders began to reach out to Iran, directly and indirectly, to explore ways to de-escalate tensions, while the Qatari leadership responded to the September 2019 attack on Abqaiq by reaffirming the principle of GCC collective security. If nothing else, the 2019 attacks demonstrated that, for all the differences in approach, Doha was not the primary, or even a significant, threat to regional security and stability it had been made out to be in 2017.
A year later, Trump’s failure to overturn the 2020 presidential election results meant that Gulf leaders faced the prospect of a Biden administration taking office in January 2021. During the campaign, Biden and others on his team had expressed scepticism about the region, and especially the reliability of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a responsible partner. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that the transition from Trump to Biden also saw the ending of a blockade that would likely never have happened under any other president, and that Saudi officials put Mohammed bin Salman front and centre of the reconciliation summit, portraying him as a regional statesman and drawing a line under the past four years.
While the precise details of the Al-Ula agreement have not been disclosed, there are grounds for cautious optimism that the process of reconciliation is more durable than after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement which ended a 2014 diplomatic standoff, and which failed to prevent the subsequent rupture in 2017. Notably, follow-up meetings have occurred between Qatari and Emirati as well as Qatari and Egyptian delegations and successive rounds of talks have taken place to address issues of concern.
This suggests that the Al-Ula Agreement, unlike the Riyadh Agreement, is not a one-off document but rather a part of a deeper process of re-engaging along specific bilateral tracks that could enable the parties to go deeper than a generic “one-size-fits-all” agreement would allow. It further indicates an acknowledgement that issues are bridgeable and not framed as a “take-it-or-leave-it” ultimatum as with the so-called 13 demands made by the blockading states in June 2017 which were no basis for fruitful negotiation.
There also appears to be a recognition of flexibility that relations between Qatar and the four blockading states will not all proceed at the same speed or depth. Already, there are signs that ties have improved fastest and farthest with Saudi Arabia and (to a lesser extent) Egypt, which likely reflects the fact that much of the original animosity behind the blockade did not originate in Riyadh or in Cairo. Along with other GCC leaders, the Qatari leadership expressed support for the crown prince in February in the aftermath of the release of CIA findings related to the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reaffirmed the importance of a stable Saudi Arabia to regional security in the Gulf. Emir Tamim visited Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on May 10 and ties at all levels appear to have been fully restored.
The blockade of Qatar was the longest rift in the history of the GCC, which marked its 40th anniversary on May 25, and, unlike previous periods of tension, its effect was not restricted to the level of leaders and policymaking elites but encompassed whole nations. Damage done to the social fabric of the “Gulf house” may take longer to repair and memories of the bitterness and rancour on media and social media platforms could linger. For the time being and the foreseeable future, though, all parties to the blockade are likely to establish a modus vivendi at least until the regional or international context changes again.