Gulf Declaration Provides New Opportunities for the Incoming Biden Administration
The incoming Biden administration was presented with a most welcome development when it was announced on January 4 that an agreement has been reached to end the three-year-old rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.
On November 27, the Financial Times carried a long report, headlined “Saudi Arabia seeks to resolve Qatar crisis as ‘gift’ to Joe Biden”. Essentially, the newly announced rapprochement has the potential to enable the incoming Biden administration to accomplish major goals in the Gulf region as well as in the overall Middle East.
A good deal of credit for the breakthrough goes to Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait’s ruler. Ahmad Nasser al Sabah, Kuwait’s foreign minister, explained that “based on Sheikh Nawaf’s proposal, it was agreed to open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar.”
The Kuwaiti foreign minister added that Sheikh Nawaf had spoken with Qatar’s emir and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Ahmad Nasser al Sabah “emphasized that everyone was keen on reunification,” and would gather in Al-Ula to sign a statement that promises to “usher in a bright page of brotherly relations.”
By way of background, on June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a land, sea, and air blockade, based upon contested accusations that Qatar supported Islamist extremist groups. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also objected to Qatar’s relations with Iran.
As a result, with some exceptions, notably, to allow Qataris into Saudi Arabia to perform the Islamic hajj pilgrimage, Qatar’s only land border has remained closed; thus denying the import of products ranging from food to medical supplies to construction materials.
The rift with Qatar also resulted in the separation of families, especially those who had intermarried on both sides of the border.
In addition, Saudi Arabia prohibited Qatari planes from flying over its airspace, which forced its national airline to take longer and more costly routes. It has been estimated that Qatar pays up to $100 million in annual fees to fly over Iran.
The Saudi decision to end the embargo is a major step forward, but it must be followed by additional initiatives by the other nations that had backed the boycott of Qatar. This was acknowledged by the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, who tweeted that while his country hopes to restore Gulf unity, “We have more work to do and we are in the right direction.”
Essentially, while ending the rift among the Gulf nations is important for the region, it also establishes new realities and opportunities for the incoming Biden administration. It will enable the new administration to develop even closer relations with Qatar and set the tone for warmer than previously predicted relations with Saudi Arabia.
Beginning in 1992, Qatar has developed close military ties with the United States and is now the location of U.S. Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center. Qatar hosts the strategically important al-Udeid Air Base which is staffed by more than 10,000 American service personnel and strike force aircraft used in campaigns against the Islamic state.
Improved U.S.-Qatari relations will enable the two nations to build upon their efforts against terrorism. In fact, President Donald Trump thanked Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in January 2018 for efforts “to counter-terrorism in all its forms.”
Washington is also grateful to Doha for hosting a Taliban mission, thereby facilitating Afghan peace talks with the Taliban.
The incoming Biden administration may also work with Qatar in at least four additional areas.
Following up on the UAE and Bahrain reaching accords with Israel sets the stage for Qatar to play a larger role in pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace. Qatar is quietly providing humanitarian support for Palestinians in Gaza, which helps in keeping that conflict more manageable and could enable Doha to serve as an intermediary to deal with the wider conflict.
Similarly, Qatar maintains good relations with both the United States and Iran. President-elect Biden and his top foreign policy officials have stated their hope that a new treaty can be worked out with Iran, one that builds on the nuclear pact negotiated by the Obama administration and then rejected by the Trump administration. Qatar is in a unique position to facilitate these diplomatic efforts.
Significantly, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a Twitter post said he hoped Gulf reconciliation “contributes to the stability and political and economic development for all peoples of our region.”
Qatar has also expressed its support for a number of other top priorities enunciated by the incoming Biden administration, including dealing aggressively with climate change and distributing vaccinations to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Improved Gulf relations can also help Saudi Arabia to build warmer ties with the incoming Biden administration than might otherwise have been the case.
Biden has called for a reevaluation of U.S.-Saudi relations. U.S.-Saudi relations changed considerably under the Trump administration, which began when President Trump chose to visit Saudi Arabia as his first overseas destination as president and then extended to arms sales, a lax view of the war in Yemen and virtually excusing Saudi leaders for their role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018.
In sum, while the final shape of the deal, which has been under discussion for several months, is still in flux, it has the potential to shape a more positive agenda for the incoming Biden administration.