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Will the efforts to thwart Gulf reconciliation succeed?

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani delivers a speech during the opening session of the Doha Forum in the Qatari capital on 14 December 2019. [MUSTAFA ABUMUNES/AFP via Getty Images]
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani delivers a speech in the Qatari capital Doha on 14 December 2019 [MUSTAFA ABUMUNES/AFP/Getty Images]

The Bahraini provocations in Qatar, in the form of breaching sea and air borders, came with an Emirati incitement to thwart Gulf reconciliation – or Saudi-Qatari reconciliation to be precise. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the only party that rejects reconciliation, in principle, for current and long-term reasons. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has a real interest in reconciliation and turning a new leaf. As for Egyptian President Abel Fattah Al-Sisi, he is acting based on the "rice theory", and has no problem receiving rice from everyone, including Qatar. But he is weighing well, as an Emirati grain of rice may tip the balance, and it is likely that he will not accept the Saudi invitation to attend the GCC summit next week, siding with the UAE instead.

To understand the Emirati position, one can analyse Hamad Al-Mazroui's Twitter account, as he does not post anything not dictated by the de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohammed Bin Zayed, or without his knowledge. Could anyone who writes with such vulgarity and hatred reconcile? To gain a deeper understanding, one can take a look at the leaked emails of Emirati Ambassador to Washington Yousef Al-Otaiba, and the tweets of Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash. The true position is deep hatred that dates back to historical tribal vendettas and envy over power and wealth in present days. They are living between old and current hatred and envy, and cannot control the instinct for revenge.

In the end, Saudi Arabia is not the eighth emirate. It is true that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman owes a lot to his Emirati counterpart, and his counterpart is his teacher and mentor. However, Saudi Arabia has more weight than the UAE, which is something that the UAE cannot overstep. Moreover, their interests do not always coincide, and their visions do not always match. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is keen on reconciliation these days, and the UAE is working to hinder it. In light of Trump's departure from the White House, Saudi Arabia needs to clear its problems and build alliances instead of rivalries, not only with Qatar, but with Turkey and Iran as well.

To understand the difficulty of the Saudi position, one can read the US reaction to the ruling issued against the activist Loujain Al-Hathloul. However, according to what two advisors in the Saudi royal court told The Wall Street Journal, the sentencing was reduced due to the crown prince's intervention. The US took an unprecedented position on the ruling, expressed through a tweet by Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security advisor to President-elect Joe Biden, in which he described the sentencing as "unjust and troubling". Sullivan stressed that: "The Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur." Al-Hathloul's case is not unique, as Saudi Arabia has other open files, such as the case of Walid Fitaihi, a US citizen, the cases filed in the US by Saad Al-Jabri and Jamal Khashoggi's wife, war crimes in Yemen cases, and others.

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Saudi Arabia was not enthusiastic about reconciliation and did not respond to Trump's pressures. Instead, what prompted Saudi Arabia to seek reconciliation, is Trump's disappointing position on the Iranian strike on Aramco facilities. According to an Iraqi official who attended the Iraqi meetings with King Salman and the crown prince, the former Prime Minister of Iraq Adel Abdul Mahdi responded to Mohammed Bin Salman, but ultimately withdrew, noting that Saudi Arabia is protected by its good relations with its neighbours, even if it disagrees with them. The meeting ended with an Iraqi request for mediation with the Iranians. At that time, Saudi Arabia began to move towards Qatar and Turkey as well.

What slowed the pace of reconciliation is a Saudi reading of the decline of Iranian influence in the region, following the fall of the Adel Abdul Mahdi government and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. However, it picked up pace again when the countdown to Trump's departure began. We may be days away from reconciliation, and it is neither a Saudi nor Qatari interest as much as it is an Arab interest. It is a difficult path, not an easy decision, as the meeting and commemorative photos with masks do not change history, but they may change reality and the future for the better.

We cannot erase 5 June, 2017, from the history of the region, as the day on which an Arab country was subjected to unjust aggression that targeted its existence. However, it is not in the best interests of the Arabs, the Gulf, Qatar or Saudi Arabia to contemplate things with the mentality of tribal revenge in the 21st century. Europe overcame the tens of millions who died during the two world wars and established the European Union. The Arab world cannot remain a prisoner to conflicts and disputes that harm all parties. We cannot build a Gulf policy based on the mentality of the eighth emirate, where each Gulf state is dealt with as an eighth subordinate emirate. There is space for agreement, just as there is space for differences. The important thing is to agree that difference is natural amongst states, just as it is amongst individuals. The UAE is seeking to build an empire with military bases from Somaliland to Eritrea, all the way to Libya, Egypt and Aden. On the other hand, Qatar has a different foreign policy based on respecting the will of the people expressed in the Arab Spring. The UAE views Turkey as an enemy, while Qatar considers it an ally. This difference in foreign policy will remain whether the reconciliation is successful or not. Internally, since independence, parliamentary elections have taken place in Kuwait. While on the contrary, in Saudi Arabia, elections are considered an abomination and the work of Satan, and it is not possible to impose an approach on a country in the name of Gulf cooperation.

We hope that 5 January, 2021, will be a new page in history that overcomes the black pages that will be remembered, but will hopefully not return. They will be remembered in order to learn its lessons, and not for revenge. The lesson is that US administrations change, but the geography will remain along with the people.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 31 December 2020

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

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