The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is limping out of the longest period of internal turbulence in its 40-year history. At their annual summit on 5 January, the Council’s six member states signed the al-Ula Declaration, reaffirming their unity and “restoring collaboration” between Qatar and three of its neighbours – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain – as well as Egypt. These states had cut ties with Qatar in June 2017, imposed a land, sea and air blockade, which denied the country access to some of its most important trading arteries, and demanded that Doha accede to a list of thirteen demands. While the blockade did not fully isolate Qatar, it cost the Qatari economy hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income.
The spat never escalated past a cold war in the Gulf, but the two sides exported their quarrel to conflict theatres in the Middle East and Africa, supporting rival militaries in Libya, as well as competing political forces in Libya, Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere. To strengthen the accord, Qatar and the UAE, in particular, will need to reach an additional agreement on how to peacefully manage their relations, lest their pursuit of clashing strategic and ideological interests aggravate violent conflicts outside the Gulf.
The 2017 falling-out between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours was not the first. A previous dispute erupted in 2014, when Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, accusing Qatar of supporting opposition movements on their soil, funding the Muslim Brotherhood and promoting Islamist militancy through the state-owned Al Jazeera broadcast network. The three states reinstated their emissaries in a matter of weeks, following unconfirmed reports that Qatar had agreed to change course. The rift in 2017 far outstripped its predecessor in intensity and scale.
Within days of severing economic and diplomatic ties, the Saudi-led quartet issued a thirteen-point ultimatum, echoing many of their 2014 demands, including that Qatar shutter Al Jazeera, scale back cooperation with Iran, end relations with Islamist groups and ask Turkey to withdraw 3,000 troops it had sent to Doha days after the blockade. Turkey had set up a base in Qatar in 2014, but it had never dispatched soldiers there, and the blockading states viewed the move as an ominous escalation. Qatar responded to the thirteen demands by accusing its neighbours of encroaching upon its sovereignty and seeking to block its “pursuit of an independent foreign policy”.
With their thirteen demands, the quartet aimed at bringing Qatar’s foreign policy in line with their own agendas – in which there was some variation. The UAE’s main concerns were Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose affiliates throughout the Middle East and North Africa Abu Dhabi views as an ideological rival and whose Emirati adherents it has imprisoned, and Qatar’s alliance with Turkey, the Brotherhood’s other main supporter in the region. By contrast, Saudi Arabia was troubled primarily by Qatar’s independent foreign policy and its ties with Iran, the kingdom’s chief regional competitor. For its part, Cairo had also accused Doha of funding and sheltering members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Bahrain, which largely follows Saudi Arabia in its foreign policy, had also long accused Qatar of backing opposition groups inside the country.
Eager to avoid entanglement in the dispute, the two other GCC member states, Kuwait and Oman, tried to negotiate an end to the crisis, to little avail. The standoff started moving to conclusion only when the Trump administration, in its waning months, showed renewed interest in reconciling the two sides. The Saudi-led bloc may also have wanted to resolve their problems ahead of President Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House. When they met in al-Ula, a city north of Medina in Saudi Arabia, in early January, the six GCC members agreed to let bygones be bygones, without addressing any of the original bones of contention. The only concrete outcome was that the bloc lifted its blockade – for no apparent quid pro quo other than Qatari expressions of good-will.
The al-Ula Declaration affirms the GCC member states’ commitment to achieving the alliance’s principal goals, as outlined in its charter: close political coordination and economic integration, with the long-term goal of forming a union. It makes no mention of Qatar’s foreign policy – the biggest cause of discord. In the days following the declaration, senior Emirati and Qatari officials made clear that this issue remains contentious. On 7 January, the Emirati state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, told a virtual news conference that although the UAE would resume flights and commercial shipping to Qatar within a week, it would not yet restore full diplomatic relations, given its concerns about Qatar’s relations with Iran, Turkey and Islamist groups. “Some issues are easier to fix, and others will take a longer time”, he said. His remarks followed a statement by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani the previous day: “Bilateral relationships are mainly driven by a sovereign decision of the country and the national interest”. He said the agreement would not alter Qatar’s relations with Iran or Turkey.
The absence of coordination, or indeed agreement, on the foreign policy matters at the heart of the intra-Gulf dispute weakens the declaration as an instrument for securing a stronger, more durable alliance. Neither does the declaration do much to lessen the intensity of conflicts in which the Gulf states have played a central role through local allies and proxies.
In Libya, for example, the UAE and Qatar have supported rival factions, contributing to the length and severity of the war. It was not ever thus: in 2011, both countries intervened in Libya on the side of NATO and the Arab League to oust Colonel Muammar Qadhafi. Their paths diverged in 2014, when they began building separate alliances on opposite sides of Libya’s internal divide. Abu Dhabi – along with Cairo and Riyadh – provided financial and logistical support to the Libyan National Army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, based in the country’s east. Haftar’s faction has pursued an anti-Islamist agenda, largely mirroring its outside backers’ ideological priorities; it has targeted the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, accusing it of affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha, for its part, funded pro-Tripoli forces. After Haftar launched an all-out assault on the capital in April 2019, triggering an escalation of Turkish military support, the conflict evolved into a full-blown proxy war, reflecting the alliances that define the intra-Gulf crisis. Both sides have continued to provide military equipment, training and other assistance to their respective partners, even after the Libyan factions agreed to a ceasefire in October 2020.
The Gulf states have also intervened in Sudan, in an attempt to shape its fragile transition away from authoritarian rule. At first, former President Omar al-Bashir refused to take sides in the Gulf rift, seeking instead to obtain financial support from both. The 2018-2019 popular uprising created opportunities for the UAE and Saudi Arabia to convince Sudan’s new leadership to spurn Qatar and rely exclusively on them. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh had grown weary of the close ties between Bashir and the Islamists who brought him to power in the 1989 coup, as well as his government’s continued proximity to the transnational Muslim Brotherhood.
In the aftermath of Bashir’s overthrow, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged $3 billion in support for the new Transitional Military Council (TMC). They embraced senior officers, notably General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti and favoured by Abu Dhabi) and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (who enjoys strong ties with Riyadh), who they hoped would help keep Sudan within their sphere of influence and blunt the impact of the civilian-led revolution. Both leaders had previously gained favour in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh for coordinating Sudan’s role in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Overt and continued Saudi and Emirati support for the TMC (along with that of South Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea) strengthened its hand in negotiations with civilians over formation of a three-year transitional government, the Sovereign Council. This agreement – and the subsequent 3 October 2020 peace with armed movements – gave civilians little authority to rein in the military’s disproportionate power and left Sudan heavily dependent on its two Gulf backers, just as the country seeks to turn away from military rule and toward a civilian dispensation through elections scheduled in 2023. In the latter half of 2019, the UAE and Saud Arabia funnelled $200 million per month in cash and commodity subsidies to the new government.
The inflow of Saudi and Emirati funds to Sudan has largely sidelined Doha from the transition. Emirati influence in the Sovereign Council means that a 2018 deal with Qatar to develop Sudan’s Suakin port at a cost of $4 billion is unlikely to go ahead, as it would rival the UAE’s planned ports on the Red Sea. Yet Doha may seek to reassert its former influence by supporting Islamist candidates in the post-transition elections. Qatar has a history of backing Islamist politicians across the region. In Sudan, Qatar provided support to Sadiq al-Mahdi – head of the Islamist Umma Party and the last democratically elected prime minister prior to Bashir’s coup – before his death in November 2020. Qatari support for Islamist candidates in the elections could deepen competition and ignite further instability in an already fragile transition.
Somalia also has felt the harmful impact of intra-Gulf rivalries. When the dispute began, the country’s newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo), declared his neutrality. The UAE and Saudi Arabia viewed his refusal to take sides as a de facto gesture of solidarity with Qatar, with which he maintained close ties. They soured on Farmajo further in 2018 after Somali police seized $9.6 million in unmarked bags of cash from a UAE civilian aircraft. The UAE claimed it had sent the money to help pay Somali soldiers’ salaries, as part of a UAE-backed training program to bolster the Somali national army’s capacity to counter Al-Shabaab militants. Somali officials defended the seizure as in line with diplomatic protocols. The UAE responded by withdrawing aid and military cooperation in 2018, strengthening ties with breakaway regions Somaliland and Puntland, and supporting opposition groups in Mogadishu.
Another complicating factor was a 2016 agreement between Somaliland and UAE-owned DP World, the world’s largest port operator, to expand and manage Berbera port in Somaliland. Mogadishu never accepted this agreement, claiming that it violates Somalia’s sovereignty, and issued a directive banning the company from operating on Somali soil. The port is nonetheless expected to open in March. It will be the second test of how the newfound GCC rapprochement might affect Somalia. The first – the parliamentary and presidential elections set to conclude by February – is on the immediate horizon. Even prior to the 2017 falling-out, the UAE and Qatar supported opposing candidates and they may do so again.
The crisis between Qatar and its neighbours has held implications far beyond the Gulf’s shores. While the modest thaw in relations announced in al-Ula is a welcome step forward, there will not be meaningful progress without agreement between Qatar and the UAE, in particular, on how to resolve their competing interests in the myriad conflicts that their rift has made so much worse.
Elham Fakhro, Senior Analyst, Gulf States.