Arabic leaders pose for a group photo during the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 10 minutes

Gulf Arab Reconciliation Hides Simmering Tensions

The four-year blockade of Qatar by rival Gulf powers is over, but fault lines among these states remain. If the gaps are not bridged, the competition could exacerbate conflicts – and spark new ones – well outside the region.

Gulf Arab leaders have been greeting one another warmly in public appearances, keen to show that the acrimony bedevilling their relations over the last decade is in the past. Six years after imposing a comprehensive air, land and sea blockade on Qatar over what they deemed its reckless ambitions abroad, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have nearly fully restored ties with the country. But the embraces hide persistent tensions the leaders have chosen to overlook amid changing Middle East realities that are driving new competing foreign policy priorities. These could once again come to trouble Gulf waters, with ramifications for conflict zones farther afield, where Gulf states remain deeply engaged.

Blockading Qatar

The roots of the intra-Gulf dispute lay in Qatar’s foreign policy, which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, joined by Egypt (“the quartet”), viewed as a threat. These four countries accused Qatar of bolstering Islamist groups keen to overthrow the region’s reigning regimes by using satellite television channels, especially Al Jazeera (which it owns), to spread disinformation and Islamist ideology. They also were suspicious of Qatar’s close relations with Iran, which they perceived as hostile, and Türkiye, which they saw as another supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar organisations. Not coincidentally, the quartet governments were close to President Donald Trump’s administration in Washington, which was also pursuing anti-Iran and anti-Islamist policies.

 But the Gulf Arab states were hardly unanimous in supporting the quartet’s dramatic move. Oman and Kuwait did not participate, instead choosing to mediate between the two sides. Even the blockading states had different reasons for their action. The UAE was the blockade’s biggest champion, motivated chiefly by Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Saudi Arabia’s main worry was Qatar’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy, including its engagement with Iran. The quartet made thirteen demands to Qatar, vowing not to lift the blockade until the emirate addressed the full of their concerns.

The quartet’s joint action failed to achieve its political goals: Qatar remained unmoved in the face of the thirteen demands. At this point, Trump had also been defeated in the 2020 U.S. election, and a shifting regional landscape had diminished the threats that the four countries saw in Qatar’s foreign policy. Left with no viable way to get Qatar to comply, Saudi Arabia decided to change tack. In January 2021, it brought the antagonists together in the desert town of Al-Ula, where they agreed to end the blockade.

Uneven Reconciliation

Saudi Arabia had already begun to have second thoughts about continuing to ostracise Qatar. Sometime earlier than 2021, Riyadh had come to the realisation that it could not persist in a confrontational approach toward Iran if the Trump administration, sabre-rattling rhetoric aside, would not defend it from perceived Iran attack, for example after the destructive September 2019 strike on its Aramco facilities, which the Saudis and others attributed to Tehran. It was also concerned that continuing instability in the Gulf would undermine its ambitious economic diversification agenda, Saudi Vision 2030. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi each started reaching out quietly to Iran in 2019, and then undertook more formal bilateral dialogues. Today, all the Gulf Arab states are pursuing a dual policy of containment and engagement with Iran, with the exception of Bahrain, and have resumed full diplomatic relations with Tehran.

Reconciliation with Qatar came next. Saudi Arabia, and especially the UAE, remained concerned about Qatar’s support of Islamists, but they also saw that Doha had not achieved the outcomes it may have hoped for and they had feared: by 2021, Islamists’ influence in the region was declining, following coups in Egypt and Sudan as well as electoral losses in Morocco and Tunisia. Saudi Arabia and the UAE still label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, but they no longer feel so threatened by the movement.

In signing the Al-Ula declaration, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and Egypt promised to “restore collaboration” among themselves.

In signing the Al-Ula declaration, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and Egypt promised to “restore collaboration” among themselves. Yet lingering points of contention dictated the pace of progress. As Riyadh was the driving force behind the Al-Ula declaration, Saudi-Qatari reconciliation proceeded the fastest. Riyadh promptly opened the land border and resumed direct flights with Doha. It also swiftly reopened its embassy and named an ambassador before any of the other quartet members. Together, Riyadh and Doha established a Saudi-Qatari coordination council, chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Tamim bin Hamad, to strengthen political and economic cooperation.

Reconciliation between Abu Dhabi and Doha moved more slowly because the UAE continued to distrust Qatar for its links to the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, during the blockade, their enmity took the form of proxy competition in the region, marked by online vitriol and incendiary disinformation. After Al-Ula, the two countries resumed direct flights and initiated regular dialogue and high-level exchanges, but they did not reopen their embassies until more than two years later, in June 2023.

The 2022 football World Cup accelerated the improvement in ties. The tournament created a rush of Arab nationalism felt well beyond Qatar’s borders. The UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, attended the opening ceremony in Doha in November, and the UAE leader, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, travelled to Qatar to congratulate his counterpart on hosting the event. The tournament cultivated greater economic cooperation between the two countries, with hundreds of daily shuttle flights, as Dubai hosted a million spectators.

Qatar and Bahrain took the longest to put their differences aside, for three main reasons. One was competing territorial claims to Zubarah, a ruined eighteenth-century fort, and the Hawar islands, a sparsely inhabited archipelago off the Qatari coast, which tend to resurface, in particular on social media, when regional tensions are high, such as during the blockade. The second was Manama’s irritation that Al Jazeera continued to highlight reports of human rights violations in Bahrain, a sensitive point for the only Gulf Arab state to see a large, organised protest movement in 2011, which it violently suppressed with Saudi help. 

Thirdly, despite a few conciliatory gestures from Manama, Doha did not seem keen to re-establish ties quickly. Its first order of business was to make up with the bigger regional players – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Qatar has long considered Bahrain a minor player beholden to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. During the World Cup, Qatar did not grant Bahrain’s request to resume direct flights in time for the event. But shortly thereafter, the UAE, which Emirati sources say had grown weary of making nice with Qatar without progress between Doha and Manama, claimed solidarity with its Bahraini “brothers”, and facilitated a dialogue on the sidelines of a regional summit in Abu Dhabi in January 2023. This effort led to an announcement in April that Qatar and Bahrain would resume full diplomatic relations. In May, they resumed direct flights, and in June, they announced that they would be opening their respective embassies in the near future.

What Next for the Gulf? 

In tamping down on one set of tensions, the Al-Ula agreement also gave way to new competition, which has been spiteful at times. The proxy battles that deepened rifts prior to and during the 2017-2021 blockade have waned, but they did not disappear. The UAE was noticeably displeased with Saudi pressure to lift the blockade on Qatar despite the latter not having fulfilled even one of the quartet’s demands, especially regarding Qatar’s ties with Islamists. The Saudis and Emiratis also became more vocal in their differences over the war in Yemen, which they had entered as a coalition eight years before; Saudi talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels have excluded the UAE, and UAE-aligned Yemeni forces have done battle with Saudi-linked forces in several parts of Yemen, including Hadramawt.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE ... have also escalated their economic competition.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Arabian Peninsula’s two largest commercial powers, have also escalated their economic competition. With their diversification drive, the Saudis have their eye on dethroning the UAE as the Gulf’s top tourist and foreign investment destination. The Saudis made this objective clear when they announced their Project HQ initiative in early 2021: Riyadh told foreign companies they would have to move their regional headquarters to the Saudi capital by 2024 if they wanted to continue doing business with the kingdom. The move is particularly harmful to Dubai, where many such companies are based at present.

The two countries publicly sparred over energy policy in July 2021 and October 2022, when, in line with U.S. requests, the UAE wanted to increase oil production. Abu Dhabi grew frustrated by a Saudi-led OPEC+ push to cut it instead. As the energy transition intensifies, the scramble for market share in renewable energy can also be expected to heat up. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are also actively competing for political and economic influence in the Red Sea basin, where the latter heads an alliance of eight littoral states focused on improving security and economic cooperation that does not include the UAE. At the same time, the UAE has established a major presence along the Yemeni coast and in East African ports across the Red Sea.

Diplomatically, the two countries have snubbed each other’s events: Saudi Arabia opted not to attend the meeting of Arab leaders in Abu Dhabi in January 2023, while the UAE sent lower-level representatives to a series of gatherings in Riyadh, including the China summit in December 2022 and the Arab League summit the following May. As an Emirati political scientist told Crisis Group, “Before 2021, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were on the same page 90 per cent of the time. Since then, it has been closer to 70 per cent”. 

Vigorous intra-GCC competition may also have undermined these states’ conflict mediation efforts. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar all have put themselves forward in this role, particularly in Africa, as a way to extend their political influence and raise their global diplomatic profile. Saudi Arabia assumed the lead, together with the U.S., in efforts to broker a ceasefire in the emerging civil war in Sudan, in practice sidelining the UAE despite the latter’s significant clout in the country. Up until war broke out in April, the UAE had worked with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and the UK through the Quad group to support a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Sudan. Against this backdrop, some Emirati officials and experts express scepticism about the U.S.-Saudi-led talks between Sudan’s warring parties, saying they support an African Union initiative that would include civilian negotiators as well. (They also voice deep concern about the prominence of Islamists in the Sudanese army.) Intra-GCC contestation with respect to Sudan goes beyond who plays a bigger mediating role: while declaring itself neutral and maintaining relations with both sides, the UAE has the deepest ties of any country in the Arab world to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, while Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Arab League all seem to favour (to varying degrees) the Sudanese army on the grounds that this body represents the state.

The UAE and Qatar have been actively competing over mediation efforts in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power in 2021.

Meanwhile, the UAE and Qatar have been actively competing over mediation efforts in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power in 2021. Both have tried to establish themselves as the primary arbiter between the Taliban and outside actors. At first, Qatar came out on top. But in mid-2022, an Emirati company won the rights to manage Kabul’s airport, beating out a joint Turkish-Qatari bid, dealing a blow to Doha’s influence with the Taliban.

The Saudi push to bring the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in from the cold – pressing for Syria’s return to the Arab League – likewise revealed intra-GCC disagreements. The process of rehabilitating Assad had started earlier, namely in 2018, when first Abu Dhabi and then Manama re-established relations with the regime in Damascus. Four years then passed before Riyadh picked up the baton. Qatar (which continues to host an embassy for the Syrian opposition) and Kuwait baulked at Syria’s Arab League re-entry, however, at least without “progress in reaching a political solution” to the Syrian crisis, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. At a preparatory meeting on 7 May, the foreign ministers of thirteen of the 21 Arab League member states voted to restore Syria’s membership. At the Arab League summit in Riyadh later that month, Qatar’s emir made his position clear by leaving the venue before Assad’s speech. While Saudi Arabia kept would-be dissenters in line, and Syria was invited back into the League, Gulf Arab states’ diverging objectives again highlighted the challenges they face in preserving GCC unity, at least in foreign policy.

The four-year blockade of Qatar may be over, and Gulf Arab states may have made progress in overcoming, or at least papering over, the differences that triggered it. But old fault lines remain, while new ones are emerging. Unless these are addressed, including through high-level dialogue, as Crisis Group has previously recommended, the rivalries could quickly manifest themselves in new rifts and conflicts inside and outside the Gulf.

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