Exactly 43 months to the day since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed political and economic ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017, the Al-Ula declaration signed at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia brought the blockade of Qatar to a formal end.
The “solidarity and stability” agreement, the text of which has not been made public, is a significant advance in the efforts to overcome the deepest rift in the 40-year history of the GCC, ahead of Joe Biden taking over the presidency of the United States from Donald Trump on January 20.
However, while a crisis that began with Trump coming into office is ending just before he leaves the White House, the longer-term impacts of the regional rift are likely to take considerable time to heal and cannot be merely signed away with the stroke of a pen.
It is hard to disentangle the blockade of Qatar from the trajectory of Trump’s highly unconventional and transactional approach to foreign policy. Differences on regional issues between Qatar and some of its neighbours, especially the UAE, long predated the 2017 blockade and were manifested in the nine-month withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Doha in 2014.
That earlier rift was resolved by patient Kuwaiti mediation that resulted in the signing of the Riyadh Agreement in November 2014. Over the next two and half years, Qatar sent forces to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, hosted King Salman on a state visit to Doha in December 2016 and ratified GCC-wide security cooperation agreements.
After all this, the outbreak of the 2017 blockade, two weeks after Trump visited Riyadh on his first foreign trip as US president, took many observers of regional politics completely by surprise. This includes the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who later commented that “suddenly, this dispute came into existence” after “we met in Riyadh, in the presence of President Trump, and there was no one to say that there was a dispute between us”.
The feeling that something had transpired in Riyadh that contributed to the blockade was subsequently given credence by Trump himself, as he tweeted: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”
Although Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait was instrumental in preventing the situation from escalating further, going so far as to declare in September 2017 that “what is important is that we have stopped any military action”, he died in September 2020 with the crisis still unresolved.
In recent months, it was Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who pushed most strongly for a deal that would assist the administration in its attempts to further isolate Iran through a campaign of “maximum pressure”. Kushner and his aides visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar in early December to flesh out the outlines of a deal and are said to have smoothed over issues that reportedly arose at the last minute.
Kushner’s role and his presence at the signing ceremony in the Saudi heritage site of Al-Ula upended assertions by the blockading quartet that the crisis would be “resolved in Riyadh” rather than by the US.
The communique of the GCC summit, which was named in honour of the two great balancers of regional politics – Sheikh Sabah and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, who also passed away last year – contained little detail about specific commitments made by the parties to end the blockade or move forward. Therefore, there is a risk that the Al-Ula declaration may suffer the same fate as the 2014 Riyadh Agreement, which lacked safeguards to monitor and verify compliance by all signatories, and itself became an issue of contestation and mutual recrimination after the 2017 crisis began.
There is an opportunity for the GCC to ensure that its own settlement dispute mechanism is utilised to manage any future disputes that may arise among member states, and that regional power plays, like that of 2017, cannot be repeated.
There have been suggestions that the UAE was more resistant to an agreement than Saudi Arabia and it was noticeable that neither King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, nor President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt chose to attend the summit or sign in person the agreement.
At the very least, there was an acknowledgement by the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, that the maximalist 13 demands made by the blockading quartet of Qatar in June 2017 had given way to “general outlines that govern relations” between the GCC states. Gargash added that “we [the UAE] are very satisfied with this outcome”.
But it remains to be seen whether the lifting of the blockade fully equates to an ending of the rift in the Gulf or corresponds more to a bilateral reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It is unclear how much the UAE, especially Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain will buy into the new era in regional relations. Ties of trust and people-to-people connections between these states and Qatar may well take more time to recover.
What has made this crisis different from previous disagreements is that it went far beyond the confines of a political dispute among elites to hit directly on families and individuals who endured years of separation and often vituperative finger-pointing and name-calling on social media. The social legacy of the Qatar blockade is likely to be the hardest issue to resolve, even after the disruptive effects of the pandemic dissipate and people are able to travel throughout the Gulf again. At the political level, an agreement made with an eye on Washington and on positioning vis-à-vis the upcoming Biden administration may at most only paper over the deeper cracks that the Gulf crisis has exposed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.