Gulf Cooperation Council members and Egypt resume ties with Qatar after a 43-month embargo on the latter but restoration of normal relations will depend on the greater recognition of one another’s national sovereignty

Published : January 16, 2021 12:12 IST

Ahead of the opening session of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the northwestern Saudi city of al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, on January 5, (from left)Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Omani Deputy Prime Minister Fahd Bin Mahmud, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, Dubai’s Ruler and UAE Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum and Nayef al-Hajraf, secretary-general of the GCC. Photo: AFP PHOTO / SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL-JALOUD

The restoration of normal relations among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members—following the end of a stringent 43-month embargo on Qatar on January 5—will depend on their ability to foster mutual respect and greater recognition of one another’s national sovereignty. When the quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain (GCC insiders) and Egypt imposed a comprehensive embargo on Doha in June 2017, its Defence Minister characterised the action a bloodless declaration of war. The boycott, which entailed a freeze on diplomatic and trade ties, the closure of the country’s only land border with Saudi Arabia, hampering the bulk of food imports, besides sea and air blockade, had occasioned comparisons with Kuwait in the 1990s first Gulf War. There was even speculation that Saudi Arabia was planning to build a canal on its border with Qatar.

The dramatic developments of 2017 followed within years of a major 2014 rift, when the GCC trio recalled their ambassadors to Doha. In the wake of its open support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine following the Arab Spring protests, the kingdom was accused of financing Islamist terrorist groups and fostering close ties with arch regional rival, Iran.

The Sultanate, globally the richest in terms of per capita income and among the world’s largest exporters of liquefied natural gas (LNG), has if anything emerged stronger in dealing with the fallout from its long isolation. It faced down the demand by the boycotting nations for the closure of Al Jazeera, Doha’s flagship television network, and arguably the most influential media network in the Arab world. No less unrealistic were demands on Qatar to reduce its collaboration with regional heavyweight Iran, with which it shares an offshore natural gas field, shut down Turkey’s military base and severe ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The four states also wanted Qatar to handover individuals regarded as extremists by their governments and stop funding entities designated by Washington as terrorist organisations.

Doha was firm in its resolve not to engage with these conditions, deeming them as blatant interference with its sovereignty and independent foreign policy, while leaving the door open for dialogue. On the contrary, it leveraged its regional clout with Iran and Turkey to cushion the impact of the embargo. Constraining Washington’s initial backing to the Saudi-led action were serious differences between President Donald Trump and the Secretary of State over singling out Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the region.

Qatar has also explored legal options at multilateral institutions to challenge its isolation. Notable is a July 2020 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in Qatar’s favour. The Hague court rejected the quartet’s contention questioning the jurisdiction of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to pronounce on the closure of their airspace to Qatari aircraft. At the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a dispute resolution panel ruled that while Riyadh was within its right to block the Qatari broadcaster beIN Sports on grounds of national security, it nonetheless upheld the latter’s claims of copyright violations. In 2018, the ICJ ordered that families separated by UAE’s expulsion of Qataris under the boycott should be reunited and also that issues relating to the disruption of education be appropriately addressed. The court began public hearings last August on Doha’s 2018 complaint that the expulsion of thousands of Qataris by the UAE and the air and sea blockade amounted to racial discrimination under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. There are signs Doha may not pursue these litigation following the recent rapprochement.

The recent end of the blockade is being viewed largely as resulting from Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to signal cooperation with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden. Biden’s plans to re-engage with Iran has taken the wind out of the sails of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to counter their regional rival Tehran. Qatar has for its part already declared that its relations with Iran would not undergo a shift merely on account of the end of the blockade. An unstated message perhaps is also that it would not brook any interference in its pursuit of an independent foreign policy.

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