A flurry of diplomacy this week marks the first possible turning point in the five-week-old standoff between a defiant Qatar and four Saudi Arabia-led Arab states that have tried to bring it to its knees, accusing it of promoting terrorism and threatening their security. While accusations and denials continue to fly around, we may be facing a turning point towards a possible negotiated diplomatic resolution that satisfies the legitimate minimum demands of both sides – if all concerned respond maturely to the new positive developments.
The heart of this possible shift is a list of six “principles” issued on Thursday by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt, which address in broad and universally acceptable terms the same concerns of regional security and stability that had prompted the initial assault on Qatar in early June. These six principles seem to replace for now the 13 “non-negotiable demands” on Qatar that it had squarely rejected in any case, and that had found virtually zero support among any other major countries.
This is significant because the six broad principles clearly can be supported by Qatar and all its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners, once the details are clarified and negotiated quietly. This would reverse the boisterous, aggressive, and defiant tones that defined the past five weeks of public sparring, while a seemingly detached United States watched from the sidelines and also sent conflicting signals.
Three trends that peaked last week may have pushed the feuding parties towards a possible new path to resolution. The Qataris showed that they could and would resist both the siege and the unreasonable demands from their GCC neighbours, for years if need be, and many important countries supported them.
The Saudi-led group pressuring Qatar found themselves almost totally isolated internationally, with nothing to show for their previous month of aggressive demands on Qatar. They probably realised that any new sanctions they imposed would only backfire on them politically and economically, and tarnish their reputation globally as reliable partners. And the United States engaged more directly and clearly for a negotiated resolution of the feud, following weeks of mixed signals and seemingly detached American reactions to what Washington initially described as an in-house feud within the GCC; strong European support for a negotiated solution also reinforced the US position.
The announcement on Thursday that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would fly to Kuwait on Monday – the formal mediator in this issue – followed the German Foreign Minister’s statement that Qatar would allow German experts to inspect Qatari financial accounts to investigate any credible allegations of support for “terrorist” groups. These developments coincided with statements at a private conference in Washington, DC on Thursday by former US officials who handled terror financing probes that several countries in the GCC seem to have allowed their citizens to fund extremist Islamist groups or other designated “terrorists”.
The accelerated direct involvement of the US, Germany, and other foreign powers in resolving this dispute is a critical component of the diplomatic process – but the interests of regional powers such as Iran and Turkey that have come to Qatar’s assistance in riding out the Saudi-Emirati-led failed siege should also be taken into consideration.
An opening now exists for all sides to acknowledge that money and tough-guy talk can never substitute for a rational, principled, and balanced discussion of legitimate grievances that are resolved through dialogue and negotiations.
The six principles statement opens the door for Qatar and its GCC erstwhile partners – should they wish – to achieve critical goals that have been sidelined during the past five weeks. They can agree to core principles of promoting mutual security, stability, and sovereignty, while also fighting terrorism, preventing cross-border provocations and incitements, and refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
The six principles broadly but also specifically respond to the demands of both sides, as well as the global commitment to fight terrorism and political violence. They also significantly include references to 2013/14 and 2017 agreements on these issues that all six GCC states had agreed to implement, so all sides could move ahead to a resolution by reaffirming positions they had all already accepted.
How those broad principles are defined in practice will determine whether or not this is indeed an opening to a new path to resolve this conflict. So, for example, will the Saudi-led side insist that closing Al Jazeera is critical to ending “incitement” against one’s neighbours, as they did in their original, and widely ridiculed, demands that Qatar rightly rejected out of hand? Will Qatar negotiate an agreement that commits all the GCC states to the same principles as they want it to implement? Do foreign military bases across the entire GCC threaten any one country’s security?
The past five weeks have confirmed again that unilateral hard demands issued within an aggressive siege of Qatar have no chance of being accepted. They have also shown that Qatar is willing to comply with international measures to prevent funding of terrorist groups – inspections, audits, embedded foreign technical experts – but very reasonably it wants those measures to be applied universally across the GCC and other states. Achieving an agreement that sticks will require the same kind of mutual respect and balanced, realistic diplomacy that allowed Iran and its international negotiating partners to reach their agreement on nuclear/sanctions issues – because both sides’ concerns were taken into account, and international principles of legitimate or forbidden actions were applied equally to both sides.
Saudi-Emirati-led bravado across the Gulf during the past five weeks unsuccessfully used tough talk and siege measures to force Qatar to comply with the unreasonable initial demands. Not only did Qatar refuse to comply; also every important power in the world emphasised its support for a political resolution of the conflict and ending the siege.
An opening now exists for all sides to acknowledge that money and tough talk can never substitute for a rational, principled, and balanced discussion of legitimate grievances that are resolved through dialogue and negotiations. This is a spectacle of many characters in the Arab world and abroad, including mature established leaders, dysfunctional new leaders, and brash young men who know little about the workings of the world. Let us hope the mature leaders among us prevail, which they now have a chance to do if they follow up diligently to build on the six principles that have just been announced.
Rami G Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, an internationally syndicated columnist, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.