هوشنگ شیخی | امیدی به بهبود روابط دوحه-ریاض نیست
Do not get gentle into that night
TEHRAN – After more than three years of diplomatic tensions and media campaigns against each other, Saudi Arabia and Qatar seem to have ultimately decided to bury the hatchet, a move that prompted observers to ponder over what might have gotten the two archrivals to leave behind their differences and embark on a new policy of rapprochement.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates – commonly known as the Arab Quartet – severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, and imposed a total blockade on the tiny Persian Gulf nation. The four countries closed their airspace, land, and sea routes to Qatari planes, cars, and vessels, a move that prompted Qatar to use Iranian airspace. Kuwait, a country stuck in the middle of the dispute between its neighbors, had studiously worked to reconcile the opposing sides with no success.
But on Friday, the Kuwaiti mediation efforts, out of the blue, seemed to bear fruit. On that day, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah appeared on Kuwait’s state TV to read out a statement on the rift between Qatar and the Arab quartet.
“Fruitful discussions have taken place recently in which all sides expressed their keenness for [Persian] Gulf and Arab unity and stability, and to reach a final agreement that realizes lasting solidarity,” the chief Kuwaiti diplomat said.
A day later, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah sent a letter of appreciation to the leaders of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. The Kuwaiti Emir thanked his Qatari counterpart for his efforts to make the good offices of Kuwait succeed in putting an end to the Persian Gulf crisis. According to the letter, Kuwait has succeeded in hammering out a “final agreement” that ensures the unity among the Persian Gulf Arab countries.
In his letter to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Sheikh Nawaf thanked the king for “What the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did to achieve the historic achievement by reaching the final agreement to resolve the [Persian] Gulf dispute.”
The Emir of Kuwait also thanked President Donald Trump for the “great efforts” that the United States did to resolve the Persian Gulf crisis.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia both welcomed Kuwait efforts, while Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE, which boycotted Qatar alongside the Saudis, have kept silent, with some news reports suggesting that the Saudis have broken ranks with these allies to normalize relations with the Qataris.
Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE are not parties to the normalization deal that the Saudis are about to sign with Qatar. The Qatari-affiliated New Arab newspaper said on Sunday that the normalization will start off with a bilateral agreement between Riyadh and Doha and then Manama and Cairo will join it. Citing “a special source”, the newspaper also said that the Emirati position is still unclear even if it tends to be reluctant.
The Kuwaiti Emir said in his letter to the Saudi king that Saudi Arabia has represented the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt in the reconciliation talks. However, Doha-Riyadh reconciliation increasingly seems to be bilateral.
Following the Kuwaiti foreign minister’s statement, Saudi Arabia and Qatar welcomed the progress made in reconciliation talks.
“The Kuwaiti statement is an imperative step towards resolving the GCC crisis. We express our gratitude to the State of Kuwait for their mediation & the United States for their efforts. The interest and security of the people of the [Persian] Gulf & the region remain our top priority,” Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar Mohammad bin Abdulrahman said in a tweet.
He also issued a lengthy statement welcoming the Kuwaiti efforts.
“HE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani expressed the State of Qatar’s optimism for a solution to the [Persian] Gulf crisis, and said that in Qatar we are very positive and always treat any initiative that brings peace in the region positively,” the Qatari Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia also expressed optimism that the three-year-long crisis will be resolved soon. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said on Saturday there has been “significant progress” in resolving the crisis that began in 2017.
“We have seen significant progress in the last few weeks, which means we are now hopeful we can reach a final conclusion very soon that will be satisfactory to all parties,” the Saudi foreign minister said in remarks made at the International Institute for Security Studies Manama Conference on Saturday.
While the details of the Qatar-Saudi Arabia deal have not been made public yet, some pundits in the region have put the deal in the broader context of the simmering tensions between Iran on one hand and the U.S. and Israel on the other.
These pundits point to the fact that the reconciliation deal was announced immediately after a not-so-public visit by an American delegation led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In a last-ditch effort to secure an achievement for his father-in-law, Kushner recently paid a visit to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He sought to convince the Saudi and Qatari leaders to reconcile and reach a deal on several outstanding issues, according to an Axios report. White House envoy Avi Berkowitz, International Development Finance Corporation CEO Adam Boehler, and former Iran envoy Brian Hook accompanied Kushner.
This visit came against a backdrop of heightened tensions over the assassination of the prominent Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
On November 27 at 14:30, nearly 10 people attacked the convoy of Fakhrizadeh on a highway in the small city of Absard in Damavand County, about 40 kilometers east of the capital Tehran. The scientist lost his life during the attack while his bodyguards were severely injured. Iranian officials were quick to point the finger at Israel, which has carried out many assassination operations against Iranian nuclear scientists over the past decade. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet on the day of the assassination that the attack was carried out with “serious indications of Israeli role.” Since then, several Iranian officials have vowed to take revenge against Israel.
Following the assassination, the region was abuzz with speculations and rumors that Israel might seek to push the White House into attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities in the waning days of the Trump administration. In fact, a London-based news website close to Qatar has even said that the issue of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities was recently raised during a trilateral meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Saudi Arabia.
The pundits who said that the Qatar-Saudi Arabia deal might have something to do with Iran mainly refer to the recent American and Israeli movements in the region.
It’s not clear yet whether the deal has something to do with Iran. Both parties to the deal – Qatar and Saudi Arabia – did not give details about it. The Qatari embassy in Tehran declined to comment on the details of the deal.
But this deal may fall short of securing Qatar’s national interests, especially if it drives Qatar away from Iran, which has opened its airspace and sea routes to Doha over the past three years, according to Houshang Sheikhi, a political analyst and expert on West Asia.
“This primary deal between Riyadh and Doha has something to do with America. It may even be related to Iran because the situation in the region has not changed. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are still locked in competition in many countries such as Libya and Syria. When Qatar was blockaded, it sought the support of other countries including the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, if the Qataris damage their relations by getting closer to the Saudis, there will be very high risks for Qatar,” Sheikhi told the Tehran Times.
The expert also said that establishing relations between Doha and Riyadh may never be in favor of Qatar because Saudi Arabia still does not acknowledge any role for Qatar in regional issues and the two are engaged in a fierce competition on Egypt.
Iran has welcomed the Kuwaiti mediation efforts to bring an end to the three-year-long crisis between Qatar and the Arab quartet. But it seems that Iran is carefully watching the situation in the region in light of the U.S. and Israel’s efforts to turn up the heat on Tehran.
Iran has sought to strengthen ties with Qatar and other Arab states in the region but it is also keen to make these states understand that it does not accept any realignment aimed at harming Iran’s interests.
“We welcome understandings in the Persian Gulf announced by Kuwait. Iran’s longstanding policy is diplomacy, good neighborly relations & regional dialogue. We hope reconciliation contributes to stability and political & economic development for all peoples of our region,” Zarif said in a tweet on Friday, hours after Kuwait put out a statement saying that “fruitful” talks have been held between all sides of the rift.