Al-Ula the first step to restoring GCC unity

06 January 2021
The Al-Ula Accord is a major shift in regional relations after three-and-a-half years of deadlock

Richard Thompson
Editorial director

The Al-Ula Accord, signed on 5 January 2021 at the conclusion of the 41st GCC Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, represents a significant shift in regional relations after three-and-a-half years of political deadlock.

But it does not signal the end of tensions within the GCC.   

While the accord outlines some 117 areas of agreement and cooperation between Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it does not specify the exact status of trade and diplomatic relations between each country. Nor does it describe the sentiment behind the scenes.

The disagreements over policies and behaviours that sparked the dramatic fallout between Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama, Cairo and Doha remain.

The GCC diplomatic crisis has left some deep scars and it will take many months, even years, of confidence-building measures before the dispute is truly over.     

And while we can expect the confidence-inspiring steps to result in announcements on mutual cooperation agreements, business deals and cross-border investments in the coming weeks and months, it is not inconceivable that new areas of disagreement will emerge.   

Change in dynamic

The most significant thing about the agreement is that it is signed by all six GCC states plus Egypt. It is a fundamental change in the regional dynamic after three-and-a-half years of stalemate.

The primary mover in the change has been Saudi Arabia, with Kuwait acting as facilitator, ensuring dialogue between Riyadh and Doha.

US President Trump's special adviser Jared Kushner has also played a role as he has pushed for an end to the GCC dispute as part of his wider Middle East peace initiative that has led to the Abraham Accords and seen the normalisation of relations between Israel and several Arab states including the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.  

It is no coincidence that the three-and-a-half-year GCC dispute coincided exactly with President Trump’s period in office, and Riyadh's shift in approach to Qatar has been prompted by the imminent change in the White House. 

The US remains Saudi Arabia’s most important international relationship, providing security and economic strength, and it is vital to Riyadh to protect its close relations with Washington.

Incoming US President Joe Biden, who has been critical of Saudi Arabia in the past, will introduce a different approach to that of President Trump, particularly with regard to Iran.

He will place greater emphasis on diplomacy and multilateralism, as he seeks to diffuse geopolitcal tensions in the region that threaten American interests. And he will increase pressure against human rights abuses.

The most significant thing about the agreement is that it is signed by all six GCC states plus Egypt

Riyadh has decided that, even while it is unhappy with Doha's relations with Tehran, and with the output of Qatar's state-connected satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera, its best interests lie in restoring relations with Doha.

Not every state will necessarily make the same decision.

The reopening of Saudi airspace and borders to Qatar on 4 January brought Doha back inside the GCC tent. The signing of the Al-Ula Accord is the first step on a journey to restore GCC unity. 

PHOTO: Leaders of the GCC states arrive in Al-Ula to attend the 41st session of the GCC's Supreme Council. CREDIT: Spa

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