In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt broke off diplomatic and transportation links with Qatar over its support for extremist groups. They imposed bans on shipping, trade, direct flights, overflights and land crossings with Qatar. After two years, Qatar appears economically to be the most resilient state in the Gulf in 2019, its links to the West and Washington in particular and remain strong and its reputation widely untarnished.
Doha is projected to generate a sizable surplus this year despite the blockade and could potentially provide financial support and confidence to Saudi’s struggling economy. For Qatar, the blockade has been a blessing in disguise, allowing for more independent decision-making domestically and in terms of foreign policy. Reforms could be pushed through without having to de-conflict with its neighbours and new trade relations forged based on cost-efficiency and not neighbourly goodwill.
Now, signs of de-escalation have recently started to appear in the Gulf, suggesting that after more than two and a half years, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) could finally be moving towards a resolution. However, the apparent fading of Gulf tensions must be understood within the context of the war in Yemen, tension with Iran and the Trump administration’s policies towards the Middle East. While there have been several developments that have affected the situation in the region and made it more conducive to renewed dialogue, it seems the September 14 drone attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities have had a significant effect on Riyadh. They mark a turning point in Saudi foreign policy on many levels, including the GCC crisis.
The impact of the attack on Aramco was much bigger than the financial losses the company incurred as a result of the damage to its facilities and the temporary reduction of daily oil output. Regardless of where the drones came from — Yemen, Iraq or Iran — the fact that they were able to reach Aramco’s facilities represents the biggest American failure in the Gulf since US President Donald Trump came to power. As a result, it has upset what many assumed to be strong relations between Riyadh and the Trump administration.
The realization that no amount of US military weaponry can protect the country and that the US is no longer a reliable partner seem to have necessitated a revision of Saudi foreign policy and national security strategy. Saudi Arabia definitely needs a strong and united GCC to deal with the enormous regional challenges. Kuwait’s persistent mediation efforts over the past two and a half years have ensured that the door for direct negotiations has remained wide open. The Saudi-led alliance had so far defied pressure from Washington to lift its blockade on Qatar, which hosts a huge US air base.
The fear of a US withdrawal from the region has become very real again in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, causing a re-think of how to deal with the many risks and threats around them. The UAE has switched from direct to indirect engagement in Yemen as the Saudi Arabia decide to open up to the idea of a power-sharing agreement with the Houthis (rebellion) to end the war in Yemen.
It is not surprising that after more than two years, Riyadh is at last giving Kuwaiti mediation in the Gulf dispute a chance. There appears to be a belated realization in the Saudi capital that the self-inflicted rift in the GCC is counterproductive and that the Gulf is more powerful together than divided – particularly as Saudi Arabia is struggling to find genuine foreign investors for Aramco IPO in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair.