RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – A summit of Arab Gulf nations opened on Tuesday in Saudi Arabia without Qatar’s ruler in attendance, despite signs of a thaw in a diplomatic crisis that has gripped the regions U.S. allies.
Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani instead sent Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani to head Qatar’s delegation to the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting.
The GCC bloc, composed of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, has been fractured since mid-2017. That’s when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar and blockaded the tiny peninsula-nation.
The four accuse Qatar of supporting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which these countries view as a terror threat to regional security. They also accuse Qatar of having close ties with Iran. Qatar, which shares a massive underwater gas field with Iran, says its commitments have always been to uphold international law and protect human rights and not to a specific party or group.
There had been some speculation among analysts that Sheikh Tamim might attend the summit following recent signs hinting at reconciliation. Others said he would never be seen visiting any of the quartet nations so long as their blockade on Qatar persists.
Qatar Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani acknowledged last week, however, there have been talks with Saudi Arabia.
We hope that these talks will lead to a progress where we can send an end for the crisis, he said at the Mediterranean Dialogue Forum in Rome.
In another sign of a possible thaw, teams from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain flew this month to Qatar and participated in the Arabian Gulf Cup soccer tournament, which they had previously refused to do.
Still, there’s little indication that deeply-strained ties with the UAE might also be repaired, despite Kuwaiti mediation efforts to end the dispute. This year’s GCC summit was originally planned to be held in the UAE, but was moved to Saudi Arabia.
Gerald Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the venue change is indicative if the Emirati-Qatar rift.
Unhappiness with Doha’s sympathetic view of the political Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its close relationship with Turkey remain friction points, he said.
For all their diverging views and interests, the GCC states share a common interest of stability in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow shipping corridor vital that’s to their energy exports in the Persian Gulf.
Attacks blamed on Iran this summer, including a stunning attack on a major Saudi crude processing facility, have rattled the region. Tensions between Tehran and Washington have also escalated.
All these countries’ economies and oil exports are at risk if the Gulf is not secure, Omani analyst Abdullah Baabood said.
Sigurd Neubauer, a Mideast analyst based in Washington, said the recent attacks in the Persian Gulf have accelerated the need for GCC reconciliation.
The external threat to the GCC is significant now from Iran as opposed to just a year ago, he said.
Qatar’s powerful ex-prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, said reconciliation talks must address the harm inflicted on Qatar from the blockade so that such policies are not repeated.
I am with a reconciliation that comes without conditions, and which protects the dignity and sovereignty of nations, he wrote on Twitter, before adding that it will take years to rebuild trust among nations of the GCC.
Centuries-old ties that bind families and tribes underpin the Arabian Peninsula, but that kinship has been strained under the crisis. After the row erupted in June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain warned that anyone who sympathizes with Qatar or criticizes the measures taken against it would be imprisoned and fined.
Qatari citizens were expelled from the three countries after years of visa-free travel throughout the Gulf. Transport links with Qatar were cut and Saudi Arabia sealed shut Qatar’s only land border, impacting food imports.
Qatar turned to Turkey and Iran to restock its food shelves and supplies, and deepened its military alliance with Turkey.
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said resolution to the crisis ultimately lies with Qatar.
It’s in the hands of Qatar to make sure that all our worries that led to us to boycott them are dealt with from their part, he said in remarks at the Manama Dialogue last month.
Source: Voice of America