Gulf Arab leaders sign declaration with Qatar to ease rift
AL-ULA, Saudi Arabia, Jan 5, (Agencies): Gulf Arab leaders signed a declaration Tuesday in Saudi Arabia to mark a new page in relations following the kingdom’s decision to end a 3 1/2-year embargo of Qatar, easing a rift that deeply divided regional U.S. security allies and frayed social ties across the interconnected Arabian Peninsula.
The Saudi decision to open its airspace and borders to Qatar was the first major step toward ending the diplomatic crisis that began in 2017, just as the Trump administration was raising pressure on Iran. The Saudi move was announced Monday night, on the eve of the gathering of Gulf Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia’s ancient desert city of Al-Ula.
It was unclear what, if any, significant concessions Qatar had made before the summit. Still, an immediate shift in tone was palpable as one of Qatar’s Al Jazeera Arabic news Twitter accounts shared photos of the Riyadh and Abu Dhabi skylines on Tuesday following years of critical coverage. The diplomatic breakthrough followed a final push by the outgoing Trump administration and Kuwait to mediate the dispute. It also came as Saudi Arabia seeks to unify Arab ranks ahead of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, which is expected to take a firmer stand toward the kingdom and re-engage with Iran. Dania Thafer, executive director of Gulf International Forum, said Saudi Arabia is concerned about whether Biden will draw down the U.S. military presence in the Arabian Gulf that had expanded under President Donald Trump and enter back into nuclear negotiations with Iran. “If that is the case, then the (Arab) states need to respond with a regional solution to security. And I think resolving the Gulf crisis is one step forward towards that direction,” she said.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who embraced Qatar’s amir upon his arrival at the summit, said the region needed to unite and face challenges posed by Iran’s proxies and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. He said the declaration signed by Gulf leaders and Egypt “emphasizes Arab and Gulf solidarity and stability, and reinforces the continuity of friendship and brotherhood between our countries.”
The four countries that jointly boycotted Qatar – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain – were hoping their embargo and media blitz would pressure it to end its close relations with Turkey and Iran. Egypt and the UAE view the support by Qatar and Turkey of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as a security threat. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are primarily concerned about Qatar’s ties with Iran.
The boycott failed to change Doha’s stance, however, instead buoying its young ruler domestically as patriotic fervor swept through Qatar in support of his resolve. It also pushed Qatar closer to Turkey and Iran, which rushed to support the ultra-wealthy Gulf state as it faced medical and food supply shortages in the first days of the embargo. While the Saudi decision to end its embargo marks a milestone toward resolving the dispute, the path toward reconciliation is far from guaranteed.
The rift between Abu Dhabi and Doha has been deepest, with the UAE and Qatar at sharp ideological odds. The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted late Monday that his country was keen to restore Gulf unity but cautioned: “We have more work to do.” The conflict in Libya remains a contentious issue, with Egypt and the UAE supporting military commander Khalifa Hifter, who launched a 2019 assault on a Tripoli-based bloc backed by Turkey and Qatar. Thafer said the issues that sparked the row haven’t been eliminated.
“The core tensions are still lingering, and that leaves a major question mark on how will they move forward,” she said. The summit and the declaration signed in Al-Ula to support Gulf unity “were confidence-building mechanisms more than they were a full reconciliation.” The presence of Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the summit marked the first time he’s attended the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia since the boycott began. He sent an envoy to the past two summits there.
This year, Egypt’s foreign minister also attended the meeting of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. The meeting was chaired by the Saudi crown prince rather than his father, King Salman. Meanwhile, Qatar’s finance minister arrived to Cairo Tuesday for the opening of a luxury hotel on the Nile, developed by Qatar’s Diar. It is the first visit to Egypt by a senior Qatari official since the crisis began. Officials at Cairo’s airport said the Qatari minister flew directly from Doha through Saudi airspace.
This year’s GCC summit is the first since Washington brokered normalization deals between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in rapid succession, marking a major shift in regional alliances. Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who spearheaded those deals, was at the summit for the signing of the Gulf declaration. The dispute had pitted regional U.S. allies against one another at a time when the Trump administration was working to pressure Iran.
It also separated families who had intermarried with Qataris and ended years of visa-free travel for Qataris in parts of the Gulf. Thafer said the dispute was seen as “low-hanging fruit” that the Trump administration felt it had the leverage to try to resolve quickly. Saudi Arabia’s decision to end the embargo not only underscored the kingdom’s assertion of its heavyweight position among Arab states, but also its regional leadership, which has been challenged at times by the UAE’s unilateral and politically shrewd moves. Qatar’s only land border with Saudi Arabia, which it relied on for the import of dairy products, construction materials and other goods, has been mostly closed since June 2017.
The boycotting countries made a list of demands on Qatar that year, including that it shutter its flagship Al-Jazeera news network and terminate Turkish military presence in Qatar, which is also home to a major U.S. military base. Qatar rejected the demands and has denied support of extremists. His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah congratulated the GCC leaders for concluding Al-Ula Declaration, which “reminds us” of “huge endeavors” the late His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al- Ahmad Al-Sabah to make this declaration possible.
“As I congratulate you on this historic achievement, the signing of Al-Ula Declaration, we remember the faithful and constructive role of His Highness the late Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al- Jaber Al-Sabah … who hugely contributed to the success of this agreement,” His Highness the Amir said in a speech before the 41st Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders. His Highness the Amir also thanked US President Donald Trump and his advisor Jared Kushner for contributing to the “noble objective” and conclude the agreement. He appreciated keenness of the leaders of the GCC and Egypt to exert further efforts to achieve aspirations of the people.
“Calling our Declaration the Solidarity Agreement reflects our keenness and conviction in its importance, and it reflects on the other hand our conviction that restoring it is a continuation of our desire on unity of our Arab nation,” he said. His Highness the Amir expressed gratitude to Saudi King and his government for naming the Summit the summit of “Sultan Qaboos and Sheikh Sabah” in appreciation of the two Gulf leaders’ service to Arab and Islamic causes.
His Highness the Amir also thanked King Salman, his government and people for hosting the GCC summit, welcomed Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri and commended Cairo’s support for the security and stability of the region. He also welcomed Arab League Secretary General Ahmad Abul Gheit and Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Yusuf Al-Othaimeen. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad on Tuesday lauded the late great leaders, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al- Sabah of the State of Kuwait and Sultan Qaboos of Oman, for playing a major role in boosting joint GCC action.
In his keynote statement inaugurating the 41st GCC summit, Prince Mohammad, also the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, said upon orders by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the top-level conference was named “Summit of Sheikh Sabah and Sultan Qaboos,” in appreciation of their good actions for backing up the “blessed GCC march.” He also lauded efforts by the United States of America and “other parties” in this respect, adding that the summit declaration that would crown the top-level meeting affirms solidarity and stability in the Gulf, Arab and Islamic regions, as well as “calls for bolstering the bonds of brotherhood among our states and peoples for serving their aspirations.”
Crown Prince Mohammad underscored high urgency for rising up to the regional challenges namely “threats posed by the nuclear program of the Iranian regime, its ballistic missiles’ program and its schemes of sabotage and annihilation that have been adopted by their agents.” He urged the GCC states to “act seriously in the face of the Iranian schemes that threaten regional and international peace and security.” The European Union (EU) praised and expressed support to Kuwait’s mediation efforts on Tuesday for the successful reconciliation among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
“This is a very welcome news .This is a very good piece of positive news because for over three years this prolonged crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council has been undermining the unity and the corporation within the GCC. It had also had a negative spill over beyond the Gulf region,” EU lead spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, Peter Stano, told an online press conference in Brussels. “We commend in this respect very much the mediation role played by Kuwait all along, as well as by the US,” he said in reply to a question by KUNA.
“We continue supporting Kuwait’s ongoing mediation efforts to achieve the final solution in ending this crisis. And the EU remains ready for the strengthening of our longstanding partnership with a reinvigorated GCC and its member states,” stressed the EU spokesperson. He noted that the 27-member European Union has been always supporting an intra-Gulf solution, negotiated solution to this crisis by engaging with all the main stakeholders and by continuously calling for dialogue.
Kuwait’s Parliament Speaker Marzouq Ali Al-Ghanim expressed on Tuesday his congratulations to His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al- Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Meshaal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and the people of Kuwait and the GCC after the beginning of the first steps of reconciliation among GCC countries. “The first steps of the GCC reconciliation was embodied in the arrival of the GCC leaders and delegations to Saudi Arabia to attend the 41st (GCC) Summit in Al-Ula province,” said Al- Ghanim in a press statement. Al-Ghanim praised His Highness the Amir’s efforts in the past few weeks in mediation and convergence of views between GCC countries, “which every person in the region can appreciate.”
“His Highness the Amir’s effort in mediation have successfully reached its goals after the continuation of the role of His Highness late Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah for the past few years, and it is a reason for every Kuwaiti to be proud of,” Al-Ghanim added.
The Speaker also praised the GCC leaders’ response to Kuwait’s efforts which ended in a “fraternal hug” between the leaders in Saudi Arabia. The Chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula, Hannah Neumann, Tuesday appreciated Kuwait’s constructive role in easing tensions in the region and hoped that the Gulf Cooperation Council summit will open a new chapter in their relationship. “Saudi Arabia’s decision to reopen its air space and land border to Qatar is a welcome development. It will certainly help easing tensions in the region, tensions which had detrimental impact on so many lives,” she said in a statement to the Kuwait news agency, KUNA, in Brussels today.