Doha, Qatar – Qatar’s Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani will attend a Gulf summit in Mecca this weekend, one of the first high-level meetings with blockading nations since the embargo was imposed nearly two years ago.
A high-level source told Al Jazeera on Wednesday the face-to-face between Sheikh Abdullah and top officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other countries will take place at the meeting starting on Thursday.
The summit is expected to focus on regional security issues amid soaring tension between Iran and the United States and its Gulf allies.
Sources familiar with the situation said Sheikh Tamim is unlikely to attend the three-day meeting.
“The fact that the Saudis contacted the Emir of Qatar directly suggests that the tension with Iran is taken very seriously in Riyadh. So the kingdom is ready to build a broader-than-usual consensus on how to deal with Iran,” Andreas Krieg from King’s College London told Al Jazeera.
The quartet accuses Doha of supporting “terrorism” and proscribed opposition political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar has repeatedly rejected the accusations as baseless.
Some observers interpreted the invitation to Qatar’s leaders as meaning the Saudi-led blockading countries may be backing down from their accusations against Doha.
But others said that remains to be seen.
“I think it is too early to tell whether the decision to send the prime minister to the summits in Saudi Arabia signals a rapprochement of sorts in the Gulf blockade,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East, told Al Jazeera.
But he added Prime Minister Abdullah‘s presence in Mecca could serve “as a confidence-building measure that can alleviate strains with Saudi Arabia”.
The blockade coincided with the rise to power of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Qatar has pushed an independent foreign policy, while Saudi and the UAE have their own plans for the region.
Qatar has strengthened security relations with the US and Turkey and expanded diplomaticand trade ties with new partners and existing ones since the land, sea, and air embargo was imposed on June 5, 2017.
While the blockade has caused economic pain, the Gulf nation’s currency has preserved its value since the start of the rift and the economy has diversified to overcome the impact of the sanctions. Exports have grown about 20 percent and Doha has dramatically reduced budgetary spending.
The top liquefied natural gas exporter in the world, Qatar has continued to develop its vital oil-and-gas sector without any major issues.
The emergency summit in Mecca will focus on regional security concerns as US-Iran tensions continue to rise.
“What will be interesting to see is whether on the sidelines of the summit the Saudis will endorse the Qataris as a mediator in the same way as the US has,” said Krieg. “Washington seems to have bet on Doha to de-escalate by opening back channels with Tehran. The question is whether Saudi and especially UAE can agree on Doha as a mediator.”
US-Iran animosity has soared recently over Washington deploying an aircraft carrier strike group, B-52 bombers, and 1,500 more troops to the Gulf over a still-unexplained threat it perceives from Tehran.
Speaking from the UAE on Wednesday, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf this month were the work of “naval mines almost certainly from Iran”. He provided no evidence.
Iran responded by calling the accusation “ridiculous”.
A war of words between the US and Iran has escalated since US President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 multinational nuclear pact with Iran and reimposed sanctions, notably targeting Tehran’s key oil exports.
Iran says it will not be cowed by what it has called “psychological warfare”.