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Saudi Arabia just lifted Qatar’s 43-month blockade. How did this rift end?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 08/01/2021 Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani traveled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 5 for the annual summit of Gulf Cooperation Council countries — and signed an agreement ending the 43-month air, land and sea blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

While the specific terms of the agreement have not been made public, Saudi Arabia has reopened its land border and airspace to Qatar and the Qataris are likely to withdraw legal claims against the four blockading states. 

a group of people wearing costumes: Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes Qatar's Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia on Jan. 5. (Getty Images Agency/Anadolu) © Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes Qatar's Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia on Jan. 5. (Getty Images Agency/Anadolu)

Why did the blockade happen?

Saudi Arabia and the other three countries launched the blockade without warning on June 5, 2017, cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar and closing their airspace and ports to Qatari traffic. Citizens of the three Gulf countries who were in Qatar had two weeks to return home. The blockade followed years of competition across the region in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, as Qatar competed with Saudi Arabia and the UAE for influence in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Calling themselves the “Anti-Terror Quartet,” the four countries listed 13 demands that Qatar had to comply with for the blockade to cease. These included downgrading diplomatic relations with Iran and closing a Turkish military base in Qatar, shuttering Al Jazeera and other Qatari-owned media outlets, paying “reparations” for unspecified financial losses resulting from Qatar’s conduct of regional affairs, and accepting regular audits to monitor compliance for a period of 12 years.

Analysts believe Saudi and Emirati officials saw the 2016 election of Donald Trump as a window of opportunity to act against Qatar without significant pushback from a sympathetic White House. Trump visited Saudi Arabia — the destination for his first foreign trip as president — just two weeks before the blockade, and initially expressed support for the move to isolate Doha in the name of countering terrorism. The “fake news”’ story planted on the Qatar News Agency, which helped trigger the crisis, came the day after Trump left Saudi Arabia.

Why did the blockade fail?

But the blockade failed to secure any significant regional or international support for the political and economic isolation of Qatar. Although several countries initially downgraded diplomatic relations with Qatar, few others followed suit.

Qatar had the resources to overcome the short-term disruption to economic activity, rapidly restructure trading routes, and increase local agricultural and manufacturing capacity. The creation of new logistics networks and supply chains increased Qatari resilience compared with its pre-blockade overreliance on goods imported across the land border with Saudi Arabia or via UAE ports. Qatar also expanded its relations with Turkey and found alternate air routes over Iran.

So why end the blockade now?

It’s perhaps little surprise that the crisis that began within months of the Trump administration entering office in 2017 is ending weeks before he prepares to leave the White House. Trump’s initial enthusiasm for the blockade was not shared by U.S. diplomats or military leaders, who drew attention to the importance of Qatar as a strategic partner. By September 2017, Trump had committed the U.S. to resolving the Qatar crisis through negotiation and U.S. officials supported Kuwaiti attempts to mediate. It took more than three years for those efforts to have any effect.

President-elect Joe Biden stated in October that, if elected, his administration would reassess the relationship with Saudi Arabia, putting the onus on the Saudi leadership to show the incoming Biden foreign policy team it was prepared to draw a line under the Trump era. Ending the blockade is a measure that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman can take fairly easily, given that much of the animosity toward Qatar in 2017 came from the leadership of the UAE. Saudi and Qatari officials seemed to be close to reaching agreement to dial down tensions on at least two occasions, in December 2019 and July 2020, but each time the Saudis were reluctant to act unilaterally.

Trump’s election loss likely hastened the search for a solution to this, and potentially other, regional flash points, before the new Biden administration takes over. The Saudi decision to put Mohammed bin Salman front and center at the GCC Summit, and to have him embrace the Emir of Qatar as he arrived in Al-Ula, was a choreographed move to present the Crown Prince as a statesman.

What does this new agreement resolve?

Specific details of the agreement remain unclear as its text has not been made public. There is thus a risk that the agreement suffers the same fate as a predecessor, the Riyadh Agreement, which settled a previous iteration of the Gulf dispute when the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for nine months in 2014. The Riyadh Agreement was vague on commitments and lacked monitoring and verification measures to ensure compliance. After the 2017 blockade, each side accused the other of breaching the Riyadh Agreement.

Rather than the nonnegotiable list of 13 demands of June 2017, the Al-Ula agreement appears to cover three main tracks. The first is reopening of the Saudi-Qatari border and lifting the airspace restrictions imposed by the four blockading states. The second was a Qatari commitment to withdraw the legal claims it has pending at international tribunals such as the World Trade Organization, the International Court of Justice and the International Civil Aviation Organization. The third covers national and regional media and an agreement to tone down negative campaigns.

It will be harder to resolve the social aspects of the blockade and the memories of the past three years. Unlike previous episodes of tension, the impact of the 2017 rift was not confined to a dispute between political leaders — but directly affected peoples and communities who were separated from one another and subjected to barrages of finger-pointing and insults on social media. Even if the leaders of these four countries can now paper over their differences in a show of unity ahead of any potential dialogue between the United States and Iran, genuine reconciliation is likely to take longer.


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