The Saudi-led members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Egypt took steps during the 41st GCC summit to lower tensions with Qatar that began in mid-2017, a move seen by experts as an important measure to enhance security in the Persian Gulf and curtail Iran’s influence in the region.
The summit, held Tuesday in al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia, was noticeably attended by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in his first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2017. Footage shared by Saudi media showed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warmly greeting al-Thani at the airport and later taking him on a tour around an ancient town.
“Today, we are in the utmost need to unite our efforts and confront the challenges surrounding us, primarily the threats imposed by Iran’s nuclear program, its ballistic missiles program, and the destructive sabotage activities by Iran and its terrorist and sectarian proxies in the region,” the Saudi crown prince said.
Some regional experts say the rapprochement is a step toward aligning the GCC countries and creating more pressure on Iran, particularly through ending the profits Iran gets from Qatar’s use of the Iranian airspace.
“When you have a divided GCC, Iranians will benefit from it because this division will make it harder for GCC to make collective decisions against Iran,” said Sina Azodi, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
According to Azodi, Iran for three years has taken advantage of the Gulf feud to get closer to Qatar in the face of the isolation it was facing in the region. He said ending the feud, combined with Israel’s formal establishment of diplomatic ties with Bahrain and UAE, would create a more united front against Tehran.
“These are undesirable developments on its southern borders, which Iran sees as an Achilles heel. And it could force Iran to act more aggressively, or assertively, to face the threat it receives in the Persian Gulf,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an abrupt trade-and-travel blockade on fellow GCC member Qatar in June 2017. The countries accused Doha of fueling terrorism and cozying up to Iran.
Officials in Washington have said ending the crisis was one of the U.S. government’s foreign policy goals to solidify security in the region and place maximum pressure on Iran. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner has in the past paid visits to the region to reach a deal and reportedly was leading the recent efforts.
According to Timothy Lenderking, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Peninsula affairs, the tensions have created cracks in the “strong wall of opposition” to Iran.
The blockade had banned Qatari-registered aircraft from flying over Saudi and Egyptian airspaces to Africa and Europe. In return, Qatar sought closer ties to Iran, with its carrier, Qatar Airways, using Iranian airspace for flights going to Europe.
“Under the blockade, Qatar was paying millions of dollars to Iran in overflight fees. Now that Doha and Riyadh have partially reconciled, Qatar Airways will fly over Saudi Arabia … thus denying Iran much-needed revenue,” said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at University of Denver in Colorado.
Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt initially had conditioned ending the blockade on Qatar’s leaders meeting a list of 13 demands within 10 days. The list included ending relations with Iran, shutting down Al Jazeera and some other TV outlets, terminating the Turkish military presence, stopping their support for Arab political opposition and handing over “terrorist figures.”
It was not clear if Qatar had met any of the demands when the GCC leaders signed the final communique Tuesday to stand united to achieve their common interests and confront security challenges.
In a press conference concluding the summit, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the agreement “turns the page on all differences.”
Some experts, such as Martin Reardon of the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies in Doha, say the agreement is far from a breakthrough, as some major differences between the Arab countries remain unresolved.
Reardon said a complete halt of relations with Iran will be very costly, particularly because of their close cooperation in the natural gas sector.
“Qatar’s economy is totally dependent on natural gas, and that natural gas in the north field is … jointly owned in waters controlled by both Iran and Qatar,” he said.
The field holds 900 trillion standard cubic feet of recoverable reserve, or approximately 10% of the world's known gas reserves, according to state-owned Qatargas Co., which is operating the field.
Another lingering disagreement between the Arab states, according to Reardon, is the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Qatar, where they are directing political opposition against the current Egyptian government.
“The Qataris see the Muslim Brotherhood as a political organization, whereas UAE and KSA declared it as a terrorist organization,” he said.
Since the 2013 military-led crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has hosted several of the group’s leaders, such as the influential cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The leaders have used Doha-based media platforms to reach out to their supporters in Egypt and around the world.