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Gulf unity deal further isolates Iran

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Jan 6, 2021

Six takes on the GCC summit: Everyone wins … except Iran

1. Back to normal 

It started with a hug. At the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the historic Saudi desert town of Al-Ula on Jan. 5, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani with a warm embrace, ending a 3½-year spat that shut down trade and travel between Qatar and its neighbors and undercut US and Gulf efforts to keep a united front against Iran. 

Noble intentions” reaffirmed. The hug may have been more significant than the actual document that emanated from the summit. The Al-Ula Declaration and the GCC Final Communique are silent on the rift itself. No mention is made of the 13 demands on Qatar presented by the blockading countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain in June 2017, which included demands for Qatar to cut ties with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups, and to shut down Al Jazeera.  Instead, the “noble intentions” of the GCC toward all sorts of cooperation and integration are reaffirmed. 

“Back to Normal.” “The Al-Ula declaration has achieved a settlement of all issues outstanding in a way that is entirely satisfactory to all nations involved,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, adding that “all the outstanding [issues], whether it’s the returning of diplomatic relations, flights, etc., all of that will now go back to normal.”

The deal among the parties to end the rift, details of which were not yet available, reportedly also includes promises to respect sovereignty and noninterference and includes Qatar withdrawing lawsuits and all parties ending media attacks on each other.

2. Kuwait, US close the deal

Gulf reconciliation is testament to the diplomacy and good offices of:

Kuwait: The late Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who died in September 2020 worked tirelessly to promote reconciliation over the past three years. That effort was continued by his successor, Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah, who announced the end of the embargo the day before the summit.

The summit was named after the late Emir Sheikh Sabah and the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, who died in January 2020, and who also worked to end Gulf divisions.

… and the White House. Jared Kushner, White House senior adviser and son-in-law of President Donald Trump, worked the back-channel diplomacy until day before the GCC summit in order to close the deal.

3. Qatar’s return makes the GCC whole again

Sheikh Tamim led Qatar through a 3½ year embargo, repaired what seemed like a tear in ties with the United States in the early weeks of the crisis (when Trump seemed to take the side of Saudi Arabia and the UAE), forged a positive working relationship with Trump and deepened ties with the United States, all the while backing a diplomatic solution. Doha also strengthened its security ties with Turkey, which sent troops to Qatar in the summer of 2017, and stayed out of the normalization discussions with Israel by respecting the decisions of those countries that did normalize, while enhancing Doha’s longstanding role as a broker and mediator with both Israel and the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, as Qatar Ambassador to the United States Meshal Al-Thani told Al-Monitor last month.

Crown Prince Mohammed was in the spotlight as host of the Al-Ula summit heralding a breakthrough in Gulf diplomacy that was well received by the outgoing Trump and incoming Biden administrations and capitals around the world. The summit spoke to Saudi influence in the region. MBS made it clear the decision to bury the hatchet was the kingdom’s, and that his primary reason for doing so was unity against the “threats” from Iran.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told CNN he is “very optimistic” about an end to the rift with Qatar. Sure, tensions remain between Qatar and other members of the GCC on a range of issues; reconciliation was started, not finished, at the summit. But the bottom line is that the UAE, Bahrain and Oman will all benefit from enhanced political, economic and security coordination in dealing with Iran, Yemen, COVID-19 and numerous other challenges facing the Gulf and the region, in addition to the removal of a fractious issue in US-Gulf diplomacy.

4. Turkey accelerates reset

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cultivated close ties with Qatar, one of his few, if only, close Arab partners. Ankara and Doha and have both had scratchy relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Like Qatar, Turkey is viewed as sympatico with the Muslim Brotherhood branches throughout the region. Turkey is also on the opposite side of Egypt and the UAE in the Libyan civil war. 

Erdogan, however, has already started to reset his ties with Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — and even Israel. Ahmed Gomaa writes that Erdogan has already drafted a “road map” for resumed ties with Egypt, although Fehim Tastekin notes that Egypt and Turkey remain far apart over policy in Libya.  Pinar Tremblay wrote here last month of a thaw in Turkey-Saudi ties, and Amberin Zaman and Rina Bassist have covered Erdogan’s outreach to Israel. Erdogan’s rethink in his regional policies, especially Israel, may be motivated in part to plan for the incoming Biden administration.

5. Iran’s mixed messages

Iran came out on the short end of the GCC deal. Division among the GCC benefits Iran; unity, especially in coordination with Washington, is a setback. Iran, “with perfect timing, worthy of a virtuoso scriptwriter,” Ben Caspit writes, increased its enrichment of uranium to 20%, bomb-grade level, one more violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, on Jan. 4, two days before the GCC summit.

On Jan. 5, Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted “congratulations to Qatar for the success of its brave resistance to pressure & extortion,” adding, “Iran is neither an enemy nor threat. Enough scapegoating — especially with your reckless patron on his way out.” Zarif also said it’s “Time to take [up] our offer for a strong region #HOPE.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman slammed the GGC final communique, however, saying, “By hijacking the GCC and its meetings and imposing its destructive viewpoints, the Saudi regime is promoting hate and violence in the region,” while also calling for dialogue and regional cooperation.

6. Our take: Timing is everything

The Trump administration, working with Kuwait and US partners in the region, deserves credit for facilitating the diplomacy that made the GCC whole again. The incoming Biden administration is better placed to deter, confront and engage Iran because of it; there is now one less thing to do, one more thing to build upon. If Riyadh is anxious about dealing with the President-elect Joe Biden, as some are speculating, it is interesting that MBS closed the GCC deal before, rather than after, Biden takes office. Or perhaps MBS considered that Saudi Arabia is better placed for dealing with the United States (as well as Iran and the region) back at the head of a united GCC. Biden has said he will work closely with regional partners and allies on Iran. The only one on the outside looking in is Iran, and that’s as intended, and to Biden’s advantage, as he weighs a return to the Iran nuclear deal.

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