Welcomed back into the fold

28 April 2015

Qatar has made amends with Saudi Arabia, in a sign of a turnaround in GCC attitudes to Doha led by the kingdom’s newly appointed monarch

After arriving in Riyadh on 9 April, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was firmly embraced by Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in front of photographers working for the kingdom’s state-controlled press agency.

The warm welcome for the Qatari delegation, which included meetings with key members of the country’s political elite, forms part of a turnaround in GCC attitudes to Doha, whose foreign policy was at the heart of dramatic regional disputes one year ago.

The change in attitudes within the GCC has been spearheaded by King Salman and could have significant repercussions for Qatar’s political and economic stability, although questions remain over just how long the new era of positive relations between the two countries will last.

Diplomatic dispute

Sheikh Tamim’s much-publicised visit to Riyadh comes just over a year after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain took the unprecedented measure of removing their ambassadors from the country. They had accused Doha of meddling in political issues in the wider Arab world and violating the regional security pact agreed in November 2013.

The announcement sent shockwaves through the region and prompted speculation about possible actions from Saudi Arabia that would damage Qatar’s economy, and concerns that ongoing battles for influence amid the militant groups of Syria, Iraq and Libya could intensify.

At the heart of the dispute was Qatar’s support for Islamist political groups that operate beyond the country’s borders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist organisation by Riyadh two days after the withdrawal of the ambassadors was announced.

Lately, however, the focus on Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood has faded. Saudi Arabia has softened its stance towards the group, with senior figures even going so far as to say that labelling the organisation a terrorist group was a miscommunication.

On 11 February, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said during an interview with a local journalist that Saudi Arabia has “no problem” with the Brotherhood. “Our problem is with a small group affiliated to this organisation,” he added.

On 12 February, Ahmed al-Tuwaijri, a former member of Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Assembly, followed up the foreign minister’s comments in a television interview, saying the kingdom’s previous communications about the Brotherhood had been misinterpreted.

“To take this concept and have it generalised over this huge organisation that stretches from Indonesia to Morocco and to say that it is all terrorist is unacceptable to someone of reason,” he said.

When asked whether he thought the Interior Ministry would approve of his comment, he said he was correcting a misunderstanding. “The kingdom cannot antagonise those who follow Islam,” he said. “The kingdom must be precise in its positioning.”

The retreat in Riyadh’s hard-line approach to Qatar’s foreign policy has come about amid significant changes, both in the dynamics of the Middle East as a whole, and within Qatari and Saudi political circles.

New king

Within Saudi Arabia, the driving factor behind the shift in attitudes to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood has been the crowning of King Salman, who is more sympathetic to the Islamic political group.

“We’ve seen a few steps towards reducing hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood and it seems to have been driven by King Salman,” says David Roberts, a lecturer on Gulf relations at King’s College London.

On the Qatari side, the reconciliation has been made possible by significant concessions to Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states. In September 2014, several prominent Brotherhood figures left Qatar at the request of the government, which has also given less air time to figures connected to the group on state-controlled broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

“Qatar has realised it has to work within the GCC framework,” says Abdullah Baabood, director of the Centre of Gulf Studies at Qatar University. “It has reoriented its policy and it is working closely with Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. There is a lot of coordination at a high level.”

The concessions made by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have come about amid a dramatic shift in the Middle East’s power balance. Over the past year, the region has seen a significant expansion in the operations of the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), which has rapidly claimed new territory since establishing a stronghold in the town of Derna in eastern Libya in November last year.

Qatar has reoriented its policy and it is working closely with Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Baabood, Centre of Gulf Studies

On top of this, Shia-aligned political groups have become increasingly influential in the region, with an increasingly cooperative relationship emerging between Western powers and the government of Iran, as well as an increase in the power wielded by Shia movements in Syria and Yemen.

Tehran agreement

On 2 April, a joint press statement opened the door to the removal of US-led sanctions on Iran, announcing that Tehran had come to an agreement with Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council on a framework that will form a foundation for reaching an agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme by the end of June.

Just how long the new period of cordial relations between Qatar and the rest of the GCC will last is uncertain

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is seeing reduced pressure to rein in his military campaign from Europe and the US due to the international community’s preoccupation with the expansion of Isis. This culminated recently with the announcement from US Secretary of State John Kerry on 16 March that the US would eventually have to engage Al-Assad in direct negotiations in order to resolve the ongoing crisis in Syria.

In Yemen, the Shia Houthi rebels increased the amount of territory they control in the second half of 2014, prompting air strikes from a Saudi-led coalition.

These developments in Iran, Syria and Yemen, as well as the US backing for the Shia-dominated government of Iraq, have been perceived as a threat by the GCC monarchies, which are made up solely of Sunni Muslim families.

Concerns about the shifting regional dynamics has given ammunition to those arguing for increased cooperation both between the GCC’s ruling families and among non-jihadist Sunni Muslim entities such as the Brotherhood.

“Many normal people in countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE want to see the region presenting a united front in the face of the twin threats of Iran and Isis,” says Baabood. “For this to be convincing it has to include Qatar.”

In this context, Saudi Arabia’s military action in Yemen has provided a rallying call for increased Sunni Muslim unity in the region. Fighter jets from Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan have been deployed alongside 100 Saudi jets to take part in the military campaign in Yemen, according to the Saudi-controlled news service Al-Arabiya.

“Qatar’s involvement comes as no surprise,” says Baabood. “This is an extension of their non-military foreign interventions and also an effort to show their worth to their partners in the Gulf states, as well as their international partners.”

Along with being an opportunity to showcase a new era of Sunni Arab unity between GCC states, the military intervention in Yemen has formed a basis for improved relations between Riyadh and the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organisation Al-Islah.

In early April, Tawakkol Karman, a leading figure in Al-Islah, flew to Riyadh to meet with Yemen’s Saudi-backed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi, and declare her support for the Saudi-led military intervention.

The rapid reconciliation that has taken place between Qatar and the rest of the GCC over the past three months will have positive implications for Qatar’s political and economic stability, according to analysts.

“Saudi interests had previously been lobbying behind the scenes for Western sanctions to be imposed on Qatar, but this is likely to cease under King Salman,” said Jamie Ingram, an analyst for the defence and security research service IHS Jane’s 360, in a report published on 15 April.

“It will also reduce the risk of Saudi and Qatari businesses operating in the other’s territory from encountering operational difficulties that could have led to them being forced to leave.”

Increased coordination between Qatari and Saudi foreign policies is also expected, with closer cooperation when it comes to supporting groups in Syria and Iraq that are opposed to both Shia-aligned President Bashar-al Assad as well as hard-line Sunni Muslim organisations such as Isis.

Yemen intervention

Just how long the new period of cordial relations between Qatar and the rest of the GCC will last is uncertain. The GCC has struggled to avoid internal disagreements and bickering in the face of external threats in the past. One key factor that is likely to affect future relations is the GCC’s ongoing intervention in Yemen.

“If it is a success, the Yemen project could be a unifying force, proving that Arab countries can work together to resolve their problems,” says Babood. “If it fails, it is likely to magnify regional fractures and resurrect many of the problems that the GCC has been trying to put behind it. This could be disastrous for the whole region.”

Key fact

Several prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures left Qatar at the request of the government in September 2014

Source: MEED

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