Sunday, December 5, 2021

Saudi-Qatar Thaw: A Play Of Soft Gestures

The 40th Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Supreme Council Summit gave rise to speculations of thaw in the Saudi-Qatar relations which had entered a rough patch after the quartet of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain accused Qatar of supporting terrorist groups and cut off the diplomatic ties completely. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud sent a personal invite to the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani for participating in the 2019 GCC summit in Riyadh. In response, Qatar sent its’ Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani to attend the summit which was indeed its highest representation since 2017 when Saudi Arabia intended to severe Qatar from the Arabian Peninsula and turn it into an island by digging a 200 meter wide canal ‘Salwa’ across the 61 km border with Qatar.

Saudi-Qatar relations seem to be warming up owing to soft gestures on part of both the countries. Earlier this year, the Qatari Premier had visited Saudi Arabia to attend emergency security summit in wake of the attacks on Saudi ARAMCO oil facility. Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service underlined that the recent participation by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain in the Gulf Cup soccer tournament in Doha was a sign that these three countries are willing to engage with Qatar. Saudi’s softened stand might have been incited by the ARAMCO attack that halved its oil output. In addition, the tepid response by the USA to the regional events especially ARAMCO attack led Saudi Arabia to reduce its dependence on America and strengthen Gulf unity as was visible in the joint communique of 2019 GCC summit.  

However, these gestures do not ascertain an end to the Qatari crisis in near future as the UAE still has a firm stand against Qatar and has not given any indication of change in approach towards Qatar. UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash blamed Qatar for the crisis and said that the onus for resolution lies with lies with the one that caused the crisis. He also mentioned that the resolution of Qatar crisis needs more time. Foreign Minister of Bahrain Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa pointed towards absence of Qatari Emir in GCC summit and said that Qatar is not serious about ending a long-standing rift with a Saudi-led bloc.

Nevertheless, Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani reiterated Qatar’s willingness to engage in an unconditional dialogue based on mutual respect and non-intervention in the international affairs of other states. As a goodwill gesture the Qatari Emir sent condolences to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan on the death of his brother Sheikh Sultan. He also attended a handball game involving Bahrain in Qatar in October. Such ‘optics’ matter a lot in the traditional Arab world. However, the rift in the GCC is viewed favorably by the other regional power, Iran, which is eager to come out of the US imposed sanctions as fate of the Iran-US nuclear deal hangs in limbo.

India has always called for the resolution of Qatar crisis. It is crucial for the peace, security and stability of the Persian Gulf. Also, there are 3.2 million Indian expatriates in Saudi Arabia and 0.6 million expatriates in Qatar whose safety is a major concern for India. Saudi Arabia is significant for India for trade, energy, expatriates, remittances and Haj pilgrimage; whereas Qatar is the only country with which India has a long term energy import agreement.

India took a balanced stand when the quartet isolated Qatar; and issued official statements emphasizing the need for all parties to resolve their differences through a process of constructive dialogue and peaceful negotiations based on well-established international principles of mutual respect, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The resolution of Qatar crisis is essential for regional and global stability and indications of thaw in Saudi-Qatar relations are a positive sign for the region and India as well.   

Script: Dr.Lakshmi Priya , Research Analyst, IDSA

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