Recent developments point to a possible thaw in relations between the blockading Gulf countries and Qatar.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani will not attend the Gulf summit in Riyadh on Tuesday, dampening hopes of reconciliation between Doha and a Saudi-led bloc that imposed a punishing blockade 30 months ago.
The emir named Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani to lead the Qatari delegation to the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, the official Qatar News Agency reported.
“His Excellency was welcomed upon arrival at the airport by … King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud,” QNA said.
Sheikh Abdullah is the most senior Qatari official to attend the gathering of Gulf leaders since the Emir Sheikh Tamim attended a 2017 summit held in Kuwait, at which Riyadh and its allies sent more junior officials.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and non-GCC Egypt cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in June 2017 over allegations of supporting terrorism. Doha denies the accusations and says the boycott aims to impinge on its sovereignty.
Last week, Qatar’s foreign minister told a conference in Rome that the Gulf crisis has “moved from stalemate to progress”. He also admitted that talks had taken place between Doha and Riyadh but did not provide further details.
Some observers said the summit could pave the way for a “reconciliation conference”.
Others remain sceptical, saying King Salman’s written invitation to Sheikh Tamim was only following protocol.
“We are expecting to see some improvement, however, this summit I don’t think will be the breakthrough needed to solve the issue in the region,” Qatar University’s Maged Al Ansari told Al Jazeera.
He noted three main factors need to be resolved: trust, a “face-saving way out”, and how the other blockading nations react towards Saudi Arabia’s move towards rapprochement with Qatar.
“Trust has been broken between the neighbours, especially from the side of Qatar that worked very closely with Saudi Arabia between 2013-2017… This trust between the leaders and between the states will need to be mended in a very severe way,” said Al Ansari.
Qatar’s prime minister attended a series of talks in Saudi Arabia in May, one of the first high-level contacts of the two-year boycott.
Even though the emir will not attend the summit, negotiations to end the impasse are expected to continue, analysts say.
“Ending the Gulf rift is an incremental process of engagement and dialogue rather than something resolvable at a single summit meeting alone,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States.
The Riyadh-led bloc has repeatedly said the crisis will not end until Qatar accepts its list of 13 demands, including that it shut down Al Jazeera Media Network, downgrade ties with Iran, and close a Turkish military base on its territory. Doha has so far refused.
The rift has seen families divided and Qatari businesses facing increased costs as well as complicated regional travel and diplomacy.
Al Ansari said: “If there is a clear and very trustworthy solution to this crisis with clear indications from the blockading countries towards Qatar, I think this would mean that Qatar would be very open to resuming relations.”
But he added, “these relations would be very cautious … because Qatar has seen a lot of turbulence during this crisis… It’s not going to get back to exactly what it was [before] – especially economically and politically”.