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Rapprochement in the Gulf: who blinked first?

April 27, 2014 at 3:12 pm

So who won the diplomatic war of words that threatened to fragment the Gulf Cooperation Council, and make a nonsense of its name? Did the Saudis step back from the brink, or did Qatar back down? Who blinked first?

In language which was creatively vague, the GCC agreed to adopt “mechanisms to guarantee a collective framework and to ensure that the policies of any of the GCC countries would not affect the interests, security and stability of the countries, nor undermine their sovereignty.” That could mean almost anything.

Two issues lay at the basis of the row which accompanied the withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha, and the threat to blockade the Gulf state by land and sea : Qatar’s hosting of leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its opposition to the military coup in Egypt. Disagreements over what was happening to the armed groups each Gulf nation were funding, in Syria and Libya, were a sideshow in comparison to Egypt, and Qatari backing of an Islamic movement deemed to be an existential threat to the conservative Gulf monarchies.

The main demands of the foreign minister Saud al Faisal, – the expulsion of the brotherhood from Qatar, the closure of al Jazeera Egypt, and leading US think tanks like Brookings – had Egypt at its core. So what has become of them?

The Saudis can claim that they got from Qatar a commitment not to offer sanctuary to individuals deemed to be a threat to the security of a fellow GCC member. That would have been relatively easy for Qatar to sign, because the same self denying ordinance applies to the presence of Mohammed Dahlan, Mahmoud Jibril and Ahmad Shafiq in Abu Dhabi.

On the ground, though, little has changed. Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi, the intellectual leader of the Brotherhood is rooted to the spot in Doha. Today, the Egyptian-born cleric who has berated Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis in his sermons, said he “loved” both countries in a carefully staged message of reconciliation. Al Jazeera Egypt is still on air. And Brookings is still functioning… so far.

The other thing missing from the communique is any mention of Egypt itself. Remember that Al Faisal had demanded nothing less than a complete change in foreign policy from a neighbouring sovereign state. Qatari foreign policy has not changed and yet its all smiles back at the GCC. Someone must have moved and on the available evidence , it does not appear to have been Qatar.

A source close to the GCC talks said the new GCC statement was evidence of a Saudi “reappraisal” of their policies. There have been other signs of it too. The withdrawal of the ambassadors did not stop the Qatari emir and prime minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani from meeting top Saudi officials, and the two sides agreed on the necessity to end the tension between the two countries. Which is exactly what happened at the GCC meeting.

The other sign of a shift in Saudi policy came in more literary form – a poem published in Bedouin Gulf dialect by the Emir of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The Emir of Dubai has long been at odds with his hawkish neighbour, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi , and the de facto ruler of the Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed. The poem entitled “The Pledges” celebrates the unity of the Gulf peoples and was the Sheikh’s way of rejecting the severance of ties with Qatar.

If indeed the Saudis are changing their stance and a rapprochement is taking place between Riyadh and Doha, two people risk isolation. They are Bin Zayed, and Egyptian president in waiting ,the army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Bin Zayed lost his best ally, when Prince Bandar, the Saudi intelligence chief was sacrificed by King Abdullah as the price of getting his son Prince Meteb lined up in the succession stakes. This was the King’s primary motivation for making his half brother Prince Muqrin second in line to the throne.

Bandar was always an outsider, but the new dispensation paradoxically gives the losers in the succession battle – the current Crown Prince Salman and the interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef – more influence over how the kingdom manages its security and foreign policies. And these voices are notably more pragmatic and less gung ho than the former fighter pilot Bandar had been. It would not be a surprise to learn in the coming days that Saud al Faisal had been removed as foreign minister.

It is long since time for the powerful Gulf states to come to some sort of working agreement with each other. It is absurd for them to be playing out their rivalry in proxy conflicts throughout the Arab world, and yet that is what has been happening across the Arab world starting in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and ending in Syria Their’s is not a Great Game. It is a small and largely self defeating one.

This article was first published on the Huffington Post

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.