Gulf States Agree to Ease Relations With Qatar

TUNIS — Shortly after President Trump moved into the White House, the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman led a dramatic shake-up of ...


TUNIS — Shortly after President Trump moved into the White House, the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman led a dramatic shake-up of his Gulf neighborhood, announcing that Saudi Arabia and several regional allies would sever all relations with Qatar. Then as now, the prince enjoyed firm support from President Trump.

But as a new U.S. president with far harsher words for Prince Mohammed prepares to assume power, the crown prince has reversed course. On Tuesday, he stage-managed an end to the blockade against Qatar — trying to turn a gambit that had accomplished little into a way to build unity against his foremost regional enemy, Iran, and curry favor with President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the bargain.

At a regional summit meeting in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, representatives of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt signed an agreement to restore full diplomatic relations with Qatar, a major step toward ending the rift.

The talks leading to the agreement began in September, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, as Saudi leaders had grown tired of the fruitless and costly feud and President Trump had also changed his mind about the wisdom of the blockade.

As it became clear that Mr. Biden would win the American presidential election, Saudi Arabia pushed harder for a deal in November, the person said, with negotiators from the Trump administration helping to persuade the more reluctant Emiratis, Bahrainis and Egyptians.

Saudi Arabia and its allies also faced considerable uncertainty about what the presidency of Mr. Biden, who has criticized Saudi Arabia over its bombing of Yemen and human rights issues, holds for them, making it all the more urgent for them to close ranks and speak with one voice on issues such as the Biden administration’s potential nuclear negotiations with Iran, Anwar Gargash, the Emirati foreign minister, told CNN on Tuesday evening.

By closing the deal before Mr. Biden took office, analysts said, Saudi leaders were also able to hand a diplomatic victory to President Trump in his last days in power.

“Half is being nice to Trump and half is preparing for Biden,” said Abdulkhalleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political scientist.

Qatar’s neighbors imposed an air, land and sea embargo on Qatar in June 2017 after accusing its rulers of supporting terrorism and Islamists in the region and of drawing closer to Iran. Qatar denied the accusations that it financed terrorism and maintained that it would be unreasonable to cut ties with Tehran, a major trading partner across the Persian Gulf, where the two countries share a critical offshore natural gas field.

Though the text of the agreement on Tuesday was not immediately available, the person briefed on the negotiations said it contained vague pledges for each country to respect the others’ sovereignty and foreign policy and to refrain from interfering in each other’s internal affairs.

The agreement also called on the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to open their airspace to Qatar Airways flights, the person briefed on the negotiations said, following Saudi Arabia, which had announced Monday night that it would reopen its land and sea borders as well as its airspace to Qatar.

The person said that Qatar had given little in return, agreeing to drop international lawsuits it had filed against the other countries after the blockade.

Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, portrayed the agreement as a way to present a united front against Iran. The declaration emphasized “solidarity and stability in the Gulf, Arab and Islamic countries, and the strengthening of bonds of friendship and brotherhood between our countries and peoples,” he said Tuesday, according to the official Saudi press agency.

Political analysts close to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates acknowledged that the three-and-a-half year boycott had failed to achieve its most expansive goals, including driving Qatar away from Iran and Turkey and forcing it to curb the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera broadcast network, whose critical coverage of Arab governments remains a sore point for Qatar’s neighbors.

Mr. Abdulla argued that the Gulf rulers had not expected to force Qatar to change its entire way of doing business. At the least, he said, they had been able to make their displeasure with the Qataris clear.

But they came nowhere close to crippling Qatar, which, despite suffering from the blockade, leveraged its vast natural gas wealth to make its economy more self-sufficient and build new trading links. In the end, both sides were increasingly weary of the burden and cost of the boycott, and both may have been ready for some time to back off the conflict, Mr. Abdulla said.

“It did not really affect Qatar one way or the other, and in that sense Qatar feels that it is winning,” he said. Still, he added, “Qatar is saying, ‘OK, we also have to cut our losses, because we really don’t want to be always the rogue country and the outcast.”

President Trump initially praised the blockade as a blow against terrorism, but the regional division fractured mutually dependent nations and left the United States caught between allies that it relies on for oil and military bases, while hindering attempts by the Trump administration to further isolate Iran.

Qatar has been paying an estimated $100 million annually to route planes through Iranian airspace, money that the United States was eager to see halted to starve Tehran of another source of cash as the Trump administration clamps sanctions on Iran’s economy.

When the Trump administration came around to opposing the blockade, it had little luck resolving the impasse. But in the final months of the administration, officials threw themselves into finding a resolution in hopes of scoring another diplomatic coup and putting more pressure on Iran.

Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met with leaders in Qatar and Saudi Arabia in recent months, and worked into the early morning on Monday to help the two sides overcome a last-minute hurdle to the deal, a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic negotiations.

The summit meeting on Tuesday was billed as a fresh start for brotherly solidarity in the region.

The leaders in attendance posed for what the Saudi official press agency called a “family photo” after signing the agreement. When the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, arrived on Tuesday morning, he was greeted with a carefully choreographed embrace by Prince Mohammed, a video clip of which was shared by the Saudi state broadcaster. The two rulers even took a tour of Al Ula, a desert area marked by ancient archaeological sites that Prince Mohammed hopes to transform into a marquee tourist destination, in a Lexus piloted by the crown prince.

Media outlets on both sides of the Gulf divide that had spent the last several years needling each other’s patrons quickly re-edited themselves for the moment. The Qatar-owned Al Jazeera broadcast network featured Saudi analysts and its Twitter feed praised Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, for its “tranquillity” and “modernity.”

Saudi Arabia’s Rotana Media Group, for its part, deleted a song that scolded Qatar for its behavior from its YouTube channel, Bloomberg News reported.

Those who have seen Qatar and its Gulf neighbors quarrel, make up and turn on one another in the past over the same issueswere more cautious about whether the reunion would have lasting significance.

Mr. Gargash, the Emirati foreign minister, said that “rebuilding confidence” takes time.

“The implementation remains to be seen,” said Mohammed Alyahya, editor in chief of the English website of the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya. “It is the direction going forward that’s going to decide whether this is going to be a very formal relationship, or something more meaningful and significant and substantial — a political alliance and military alliance that could bring value to everybody.”

Notwithstanding its warmer tone toward Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Al Jazeera does not look much different today than it did before the boycott. The Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians had argued that the network destabilized the region by providing a platform for Islamists and other opposition figures. The boycotting countries initially demanded that Qatar shut down the network completely.

Mr. Alyahya said he nonetheless hoped that Qatar would at least rein in the network and stop stirring up trouble.

“I don’t think Qatar wants this deal to fail,” he said.

Vivian Yee reported from Tunis and Megan Specia from London. David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from New York, Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon, and Michael Crowley from Washington.

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Newsrust: Gulf States Agree to Ease Relations With Qatar
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