Picking up the pieces: The path to Gulf reconciliation

To mend ties, Gulf countries involved in the GCC crisis will have to go through a process of reconciliation.

The 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit was held in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia on January 5, 2021 [AP/Amr Nabil]

A bitter political rift in the Gulf region, which led to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt imposing an air, land, and sea blockade against Qatar for three and a half years, seems to be coming to an end. A diplomatic breakthrough in early January led to the signing of a declaration during the highly anticipated GCC summit in the Saudi Arabian town of Al-Ula, restoring relations between the Gulf states and lifting the blockade.

As Qatar and the blockading quartet turn the page and move on, the Gulf region needs to unpack, address, and acknowledge the social and political damage that the Gulf crisis caused. The fissures in the Gulf social fabric can neither be reversed, nor forgotten so easily.

The blockade significantly affected the people of the Gulf region, whose close cross-border tribal and family connections were abruptly cut off. Social trust across once closely-knit Gulf communities broke down. Insults were exchanged and vicious disinformation campaigns pitted the Qatari and other Gulf communities against each other. Coupled with the sudden closure of borders and airspace to Qatar, the GCC crisis sent shockwaves throughout the Qatari population, triggering a deep sense of betrayal by their Gulf neighbours.

If the Gulf region moves on and reconciliation is limited to reopening the borders and restoring diplomatic relations, trust between Qatar and its neighbours will remain tenuous and resentment will continue to fester, potentially paving the way for another damaging crisis.

That is why, a transitional justice process is needed to secure a meaningful, long-lasting resolution to the Gulf crisis. Transitional justice provides a host of options for societies that have experienced harm in the past to move on, including truth-seeking, reparations, compensation, institutional reform, memorialisation, documentation, national reconciliation and criminal accountability. As a result of the social impact of the Gulf crisis, a reconciliation process that addresses the past in a constructive way is one transitional justice mechanism that will be crucial in rebuilding trust and avoiding similar crises in the future.

Damaged ties

Immediately after the imposition of the blockade in 2017, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE expelled Qatari citizens and ordered their own citizens to leave Qatar. Instead of launching retaliatory measures against the blockading countries, Qatar allowed their citizens to remain in the country. Many GCC residents in Qatar left, but some also felt compelled to stay behind, as they were tied to their family, work and education.

But this expulsion and recall of Gulf citizens had a significant social impact as it resulted in an unprecedented separation of families. Siblings, parents, cousins and other relatives could not visit or see each other any more. Communicating over the phone and social media also became difficult, even risky, as censorship laws in the blockading countries provided for harsh punishment for criticising the authorities and expressing sympathy towards Qatar.

The nearly four-year blockade and the cloud of political tensions that sustained it only deepened the sense of resentment and distrust, both within families and between Gulf nationals. Disinformation campaigns and online propaganda wars divided families with cross-border ties.

Relatives who were once inseparable suddenly stopped talking to each other, while others engaged in political fights, exchanging harsh accusations. Bitter political feuds unfolded in family WhatsApp groups, with members blocking each other. The animosity was particularly intense in Qatari-Emirati relations throughout the blockade.

“The Gulf crisis broke societies,” Hamad al-Marri, a Qatari who has family in Saudi Arabia, told me in a recent interview. “It was difficult to speak to relatives I had always gotten along with. There was this attitude of ‘you are either with me or against me’.”

And so, it was an important moment when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani greeted each other with a hug on the tarmac in Al-Ula earlier this month. But the deep-seated anger and sense of betrayal wrought by the Gulf crisis at the popular intra-Gulf level cannot be remedied through such symbolic moments nor through a political agreement negotiated behind closed doors.

Gulf reconciliation will require efforts that address the bitter past in order to prevent another such crisis from occurring. This is the essence of the objectives of transitional justice.

Transitional justice focused on reconciliation

While transitional justice is traditionally understood to be pursued in contexts where a country has transitioned from a war or repressive rule to peace and democracy, it offers a valuable framework for Gulf reconciliation.

Transitional justice often requires that an adequate reckoning with the past takes place before a society is able to “turn the page” and move on. The current Gulf rift has left a massive open wound that will require reconciliation initiatives driven by both state leaders and by affected Gulf nationals.

“Change in the Gulf often occurs from the top-down,” a Qatari senior researcher explained in an interview. She, along with other Qataris I interviewed, including those from mixed Gulf families, emphasised that any meaningful reconciliation will need to be state-endorsed and state-led. This is because state-society relations in the Gulf are such that there is a level of trust and loyalty that allows leaders to influence social relations.

In much the same way that state leaders and their media allies fomented a breakdown in social trust since 2017, so they can help to rebuild it. Official statements in support of protecting the social fabric of the region from political rifts will be necessary to help cement the process of reconciliation. Additional regional governments can undertake cross-border collaborative initiatives in various spheres of public life to help rebuild trust.

On the community level, a transitional justice process would be deeply personal and would need to be crafted by those directly affected by the Gulf crisis. Reconciliation initiatives can include story-telling through documentation and oral history, cross-border family gatherings, protected transnational mobility of Gulf nationals, and a return to regional collaborations in the areas of business, art and sports. Collaborative art initiatives that document the stories of separated families, for example, would highlight their impact across the region and serve as a reminder of the harms the crisis caused.

An important part of the reconciliation process is an acknowledgement of the past. Qatar has already embarked on it through memorialisation in public spaces. It is erecting monuments and naming public spaces “5/6” to mark the date that the blockade began. These are efforts to ensure that the memory of the blockade is entrenched, a sort of “we will never forget”.

As one Qatari whose family members were expelled from Saudi Arabia during the crisis said, “We should turn the page, yes. But we should not erase the pages that came before it. Otherwise, we will see another crisis in the future.”

In the lead-up to the Al-Ula meeting, Qatar reportedly agreed to drop its international lawsuits against the blockading countries as a conciliatory measure. Still, its efforts to protect the public memory of the blockade send a clear message: that the last three and a half years will be remembered as a period of victimisation, resistance and resilience, and not merely one of political tensions.

Transitional justice is important in order for a society to move on from a painful past. Initiatives in this direction that Qatar undertakes would inevitably have a positive effect on its neighbours and help use the region’s intertwined past to rebuild trust in the future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.