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Lifting of the Qatar Blockade: Prospects of Closer Ties Between the GCC and Iran?

In January 2021, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies officially agreed to restore ties with Qatar in a breakthrough agreement that puts an end to the region’s largest crisis in recent years.

On January 5, 2021, the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar — signed the “solidarity and stability” agreement at the Al-Ula Summit in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and non-GCC member state Egypt – dubbed the Arab Quartet – released statements confirming that they will restore full diplomatic relations. Saudi Arabia was the first to lift its air, land, and sea embargo on Qatar, followed by the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt.

The Qatar diplomatic crisis began on June 5, 2017, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a regional embargo against Qatar, severing diplomatic, travel, and trade links. The two regional players cited Qatar’s alleged support for Islamist terrorism as the primary reason for the boycott and criticised Qatar’s relations with Iran and the Al Jazeera Media Network.

The announcement and subsequent reconciliation agreement took place two weeks before President Joe Biden took office. So, how will the lifting of the blockade impact regional economic trade? Is Qatar in a position to act as a “bridge” between the GCC and Iran?

Will intra-regional trade return to pre-blockade levels?

Under the embargo, Qatar-registered planes and ships were prohibited from using GCC airspace and sea routes, and Qatar’s only land crossing was blocked by Saudi Arabia.

Officials arriving for the Al-Ula Summit. (Saudi Press Agency)

It is certain that the opening of airspace and the land crossing will lead to a boost in the tourism sector in Qatar, both by Saudi and Emirati tourists and vice versa. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems unlikely that this boost will occur until 2022. Beyond a slight increase in tourism levels, however, it is unlikely that the lifting of the blockade will have a major economic impact on the country. This is due to Qatar’s response to the embargo.

Prior to the blockade, Qatar imported much of its goods from its Gulf neighbours but in response to the blockade, Qatar was forced to develop alternative trade routes and ramp up domestic production.

One significant implication of the blockade was ironically the strengthening of economic ties between Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, both regional rivals of Saudi Arabia. The closing of GCC’s airspace forced Qatar to use Iranian airspace, for which it paid Iran $100 million in annual fees.

While Qatar may have suffered financial losses because of the blockade, it has become significantly more independent of the GCC and may not desire or need to return to its former economic reliance on Gulf states.

Prospects of closer ties between the GCC and Iran?

Although the Al-Ula Summit marked the beginning of a new phase, there are a number of disagreements between the GCC countries that are far from being resolved. So far, no concrete plan has been proposed to tackle major, differing stances on key security issues, including the Muslim Brotherhood, opposing positions on Iran and Turkey, and disputes over news outlets.

At the Al-Ula Summit, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) said that the agreement “confirms Gulf, Arab and Islamic unity and stability” and is a prerequisite for confronting Iran. He is cited as saying “There is a desperate need today to unite our efforts to promote our region and to confront challenges that surround us…especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile program and its plans for sabotage and destruction.”

The Saudi Crown Prince with the Emir of Qatar. (Saudi Press Agency)

Qatar, however, has insisted that it will not budge on foreign policy issues. The country did not succumb to the previous 13 demands issued by the Quartet in 2017, which included closing the Qatari-owned media network Al Jazeera, reducing ties with Iran, and shutting down a Turkish military base in the country.

Days following the signing of the reconciliation agreement, Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, confirmed that Qatar would not alter its relations with Iran and Turkey. Al-Thani disclosed that Doha had agreed to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and issues of “transnational security” with the Gulf countries but stressed that “there is no effect on our relationship with any other country.”

Thani has long called for a summit between GCC members and the Islamic Republic of Iran. On January 19, 2020, the foreign minister said that the Qatari government was “hopeful that this would happen and we still believe this should happen.” Al-Thani and the Qatari government believe that now is the right time for Gulf countries to repair relations with Iran. Qatar may be well-placed to mediate discussions.

Iran has welcomed the reconciliation agreement and the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, said that this step “contributes to the stability and political and economic development for all peoples of our region.”

A need to re-build trust

At this point, it is clear that several disagreements remain on key security issues, particularly when it comes to Iran. The lifting of the blockade does not mean that trust has been restored between GCC members and the next steps require confidence building among the group. Whilst the summit is an achievement, there is a need for a clear plan to be laid out on how current disagreements will be managed.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, in its inception, was established to respond to shared threats to the Gulf allies, initially prompted by the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, followed by the invasion of Kuwait. It remains to be seen what implications Qatar’s ties to Iran may have on future relations with GCC countries.