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Why Qatar’s Emir may not attend the Riyadh summit

December 8, 2019 at 10:37 am

King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud makes a speech during the 39th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 09, 2018. [Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout – Anadolu Agency]

In principle, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia this week should end with a return to normal relations between its six-member states. That’s why the invitation extended by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, seemed a welcome step in the right direction.

This, however, is not the case. Without a complete lifting of the Saudi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahraini blockade of Qatar, any talk of its ruler attending the summit seems premature and wishful.

There are still unresolved issues which may determine the level of Qatari representation at the Riyadh summit. Firstly, if the convenors were truly sincere in their desire for Sheikh Tamim to attend they would have held it in a neutral member-state such as Kuwait or Oman.

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Attendance by the Qatari ruler, while the blockade is still in force, will be interpreted as a recognition of all the accusations that were made against his country. When the GCC member-states and Egypt imposed their land, air and sea blockade on Qatar in June 2017, they accused Doha of “supporting terrorism”.

In order to end the blockade, the boycotting countries have consistently demanded Qatar’s discharge of 13 conditions. These include, notably, the closure of Al Jazeera television station, getting rid of the Turkish military base, minimising ties with Iran and severing all links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In this light, Tamim’s attendance would not simply be a tacit acknowledgment of guilt but worse still renew calls for the implementation of the 13 demands.

Interestingly, last month The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article titled “Qataris, Saudis Make New Bid to Mend a Long-Festering Feud.” Its authors, Warren Strobel and Dion Nissenbaum, confirmed that the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani made an unannounced visit to Riyadh and offered to sever ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to mend relations with Saudi Arabia.

The Arab rift with #Qatar intensifies - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The Arab rift with Qatar intensifies – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Sources in Doha told MEMO that news of the visit was leaked by the Emiratis with deliberate false information in order to discredit Qatar and prevent any chance of reconciliation between Doha and Riyadh.

Gerald Feierstein, a former senior State Department official and ambassador to Yemen, told the WSJ that while there are indications of rapprochement between the Saudis and Qataris, it is “not entirely clear that we’re seeing the same kind of thing” between the Emiratis and the Qataris.

Although there may be an element of truth in Feierstein’s observation, it must not be seen in isolation from the huge damage done to Saudi Arabia’s international image, particularly in the US where there is a near consensus by Democrats and Republicans that Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman should be held criminally responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

In September Bin Salman told Martin Smith of the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) that he bears responsibility for the killing “because it happened under my watch.” Given the current outrage in Washington over the murder, talk of reconciliation with Qatar may be a desperate act of self-preservation on the part of Bin Salman rather than a genuine desire to end the feuding.

READ: Qatar FM in US for talks on Gulf boycott

Of course, there are no winners in the ongoing rift; only losers. While the Americans are allies of the Saudis and Emiratis, they are equally close to Qatar which hosts the largest US airbase in the region. Officials in Washington have publicly lamented the negative impact of the feud on its regional policy. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conceded that “The dispute has had direct negative consequences, economically and militarily for those involved, as well as the United States.”

Closer to home, the blockade negatively impacted Qatar’s aviation industry; the Gulf states’ closure of their air space has made travel substantially longer and more expensive to and from Doha. Even the boycotting countries have been affected. For example, a normal trip from Bahrain to Qatar which is a mere 80 nautical miles has become a 532 nautical mile trip. Hence, football fans travelling to Doha for the ongoing Gulf Cup have had to fly first to Kuwait and then to Qatar; even though they were given permission by Doha to fly direct.

With literally hours to go before the summit, Doha has not indicated whether its ruler will attend the GCC summit. To do so seems like an exercise in futility while its neighbours maintain their blockade. Moreover, it is farcical for the Saudis and other boycotting states to discuss “regional and international political developments” when they are unwilling to resolve their own internal problems.

Without an end to the blockade of Qatar, the GCC will remain paralysed and ineffectual. Pushing the issue beneath the carpet is not the solution. Accordingly, while the Qatari ruler may not attend the summit, the most likely scenario is that a senior official like the prime minister or foreign minister may do so.

Meanwhile, UAE social media activists will intensify claims that the Emir is attending. Actually, their real hope is that he does not attend and thereafter portray his absence is proof that Qatar is not serious about reconciliation.

READ: Gulf states to reconcile next week, says Kuwait

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