Saudi Arabia is prepared to reconcile with Qatar. The UAE is not.

In November 2019, Qatar’s foreign minister made a secret visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss the prospect of reconciliation. The visit followed a rumoured meeting of Saudi and Qatari officials on the fringes of the UN General Assembly which caused enough anxiety in Qatar’s ally Turkey that President Erdogan made a visit to Doha seeking an explanation.

Saudi Arabia reciprocated the intention to reconcile and moved the GCC summit from Abu Dhabi to Riyadh in order to facilitate an honourable return for Qatar to the GCC fold. However, the Qatari Emir skipped the GCC in favour of a visit to Rwanda and sent his prime minister instead, dispelling hopes of an immediate rapprochement.

So how likely is reconciliation?

Although talks are taking place between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE and Egypt are currently not part of them. Egypt’s Sisi announced yesterday that he had been informed that talks were taking place and that although he was amenable, he believed that Qatar had to abide by the original 13 conditions for any serious rapprochement to take place. In other words, it was a diplomatic response that ostensibly respected the decision of Saudi Arabia to open talks, while outright refusing to entertain the prospect for a serious discussion on the issue.

At the same time, the UAE social media army and senior officials on Twitter took to announcing victory, suggesting they believed Qatar was finally conceding to pressure. Prominent Qatari figures responded by declaring that talks were intended to take place with Saudi Arabia and that Doha had no intention of discussing anything with the UAE.

Before assessing the individual positions of each party, it is important to understand the context in which these talks are taking place.

Since the Arab Spring, there have seismic shifts in the spheres on influence in the region. Qatar, which had backed the Muslim Brotherhood, saw its allies storm to electoral victories in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, dominate in Libya, and at the forefront of the Syrian opposition. Added to the sympathetic Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, Qatar’s influence rapidly spread to make it on the cusp of becoming the major power in the region, eclipsing Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi began to fear an existential threat as the wave of protests spread. The fear was that these protests would spread to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and bring about the fall of the regimes. It is this opinion that was widespread among policymakers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that led to rapid antagonism of all associated with the Arab Spring. King Abdullah declared the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists and, in conjunction with the UAE, backed a military coup in Egypt. They then proceeded to strong-arm Omar al-Bashir who, as a result of the conflict in South Sudan which significantly reduced oil exports, found himself in dire financial straits. In exchange for financial aid, Bashir drifted from Doha and sought closer relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In Tunisia, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh backed Beji Caid Sibsi in 2014, helping him to defeat Nahda’s candidate. They then proceeded to back Haftar in Libya against Tripoli.

The result was that Qatar’s influence became significantly diminished. Today, the UAE is predominantly the primary power in former Qatari strongholds, particularly Sudan, Egypt and most of Libya. Qatar no longer poses the existential threat to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that it once did. This is the primary reason behind the amenability of these countries to discuss reconciliation.

Qatar influence map in 2013
UAE/Qatar influence map following a concerted effort by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi against Qatar.

This does not suggest however that Qatar has been in any way defeated. What Saudi Arabia and the UAE managed to achieve was more a balancing of powers than a state of superiority over Doha.

It is this reality that has made the UAE and Egypt hesitant over the prospect of reconciling with Qatar. Moreover, they appear to have been caught off-guard by King Salman’s warm reception to the initiative from Doha.

King Salman has reason to seek reconciliation. Officials in Riyadh are well aware that their regional influence has decreased significantly as a result of the failure to secure victory in Yemen, their inability to push back against Iran, and their unprecedented bullying tactics implemented by the Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman to ‘keep order’. Moreover, Qatar’s ability to independently ride out the blockade and pursue its own global policy by cementing ties with Turkey, allying with Malaysia, investing in Africa, and winning over US security officials, has damaged Saudi Arabia’s position as the big brother and guarantor of stability in the region.

Bin Salman has also demonstrated that he is amenable to a reconciliation but for different reasons. With the ARAMCO IPO at stake following a cool reception from foreign investors, and in the midst of rethinking the projects associated with Vision 2030, he is in need of investment and cannot solely rely on UAE and Kuwait. Moreover, reconciliation with Qatar would do much to create an image of a more responsible leader, particularly if it comes about in conjunction with a peace agreement in Yemen, that will no doubt boost confidence in him from the markets and present him as a maturing leader.

From the Qatari perspective, it is believed that the UAE has been the prime driver of anti-Qatar sentiment in Riyadh and that on numerous occasions, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that its thinking is not always inline with Abu Dhabi. In Yemen, Riyadh contemplated the idea of backing the Muslim-Brotherhood aligned Islah. Abu Dhabi went to great lengths to convince Riyadh to abandon the idea. When officials in Riyadh were becoming alarmed with UAE backing for Southern Separatists, the UAE again went to great lengths to prevent Saudi Arabia acting unilaterally. When Riyadh hesitated and Yemeni forces pushed Southern Separatists out of Aden, the UAE used force to impose a status quo on Saudi Arabia. The constant imposition of UAE foreign policy on Saudi Arabia led to a rare public expression of irritation from King Salman towards Abu Dhabi.

The UAE has reason to fear a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If Riyadh agrees to Qatar’s initiative, then UAE loses its regional legitimacy for its current antagonism and general foreign policy. If it continues to pursue policies that run counter to what Riyadh has decided, then it jeopardises the hard-earned influence over Riyadh that was relatively non-existent before the arrival of Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. Moreover, Qatar continues to have the means to push back against the UAE. Qatar ally Turkey has sent troops to Libya to push back against UAE-backed Haftar and Qatar continues to finance those targeted by the UAE. Saudi Arabia, in the event of reconciliation, would subsequently turn a blind eye to the UAE-Qatar feud for the sake of protecting its newfound image as a responsible elder brother, and for the sake of insulating its drive for internal reform. UAE are well aware of King Abdullah’s saying of “we permit people to attack our skin and muscles as long as they steer clear of the bone”.

For Egypt, Saudi officials may publicly praise Sisi. However, they privately note that he offers very little to Saudi Arabia on foreign policy issues except that he cracks down heavily on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar’s approach to Saudi Arabia in this context is a shrewd manoeuvre that could well upend the current geopolitical dynamics if it succeeds. Turkey certainly believes that a reconciliation is possible and Erdogan’s visit to Doha was more out of outrage at news of a secret meeting of Gulf officials without his knowledge than a courtesy visit.

The most contentious issue between Riyadh and Doha remains Aljazeera’s coverage of Bin Salman’s reforms and crackdown on the religious figures. Doha may accept this and turn direct Aljazeera’s direction whole-heartedly towards the UAE. Riyadh is likely to also remain deeply concerned with the presence of a Turkish military base in Qatar. However, it is unlikely to insist on its removal. For Riyadh, the emergence of Davutoglu in what is possibly the greatest challenge to Erdogan’s premiership has led to hopes among Saudi officials that Erdogan cannot last much longer. Moreover, with no one in the Turkish political scene that remotely resembles Erdogan in the rhetoric that has magnified Turkish soft power, or the political acumen he has displayed that has propelled Turkey to a seat among the major global powers, Saudi officials privately remark that Erdogan is an anomaly and that whoever comes after him is likely to lead Turkey into decline. Riyadh believes that these factors have also been noted by Doha and will believe that part of the reasoning behind this reconciliation is that Doha seeks to hedge its risks in a post-Erdogan future.

King Salman remains keen on reconciliation. Bin Salman prefers to find a solution that the UAE and Egypt will accept. This is highly unlikely. However, if anything should happen that threatens the ARAMCO IPO, there may be a scenario whereby Bin Salman considers acting unilaterally. The UAE remains opposed as it fears a Qatar re-emergence as a regional power superior to it in influence. Egypt fears that any reconciliation will be at its expense. Egypt historically has always had an antagonistic relationship with its neighbour as they compete for the leadership of the Arabs. Under Sisi, Egypt as accepted playing second-fiddle in name but only because circumstances prevent him acting otherwise.

Qatar is no rush to reconcile. It has survived the blockade and will privately celebrate that despite losing significant influence in the region, its rivals were unable to capitalise and impose their will. Doha has managed to shore up its diplomatic defences, and even expanded its influence elsewhere and secure new allies at the expense of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It has remained a vital ally of the US and continues to enjoy more global sympathy than its rivals. However, Doha will be acutely aware that it is possible to survive isolation in the short term. However, over a longer period that sees an aggressive Iran a short distance away, a border with an angry rival, a very aggressive nemesis in the UAE, and Oman facing an issue of succession on the horizon, the situation will eventually begin to take its toll.

Reconciliation may not happen soon. However, there is clearly a diplomatic wrestling match taking place that has the potential to upend the current dynamics.