Saudi Arabia recently decided to end its three year long dispute with neighboring Qatar, in what many have seen as a ‘dramatic U-turn’, but what does this move show of Saudi’s regional maneuvering?
In 2017, Saudi Arabia began to enforce what would become a three year long blockade on the State of Qatar following disputes between the two neighboring Persian-Gulf countries. The crisis had been described as one of the largest diplomatic crises in Gulf Arab State history.
However, the crisis seemed to have been largely concluded on the 4th of January with both sides announcing they had reached an agreement. The Foreign Minister for the State of Kuwait, Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah, stated that “[I]t was agreed to open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the state of Qatar”, which many saw as a win-win for both countries, as well as another diplomatic achievement by Kuwait as a notorious Gulf mediator.
But the conflict in the region was never just between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Qatar coming out of this dispute on many accounts victorious, having restored ties with Saudi Arabia and refusing to bow to the pre-conditions of distancing itself from Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and closing down Al-Jazeera. Those in the traditional alliance, which includes within it Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, have all been watching.
Specifically in the case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this move by Saudi Arabia has been viewed as problematic. The UAE is on opposing sides to Qatar in Libya, Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere, and after just having signed its normalization deal with Israel, it’s now official ally is seen to be under threat by the aid sent to the Gaza based Hamas government by Qatar.
Part of the original pressure campaign on Qatar, in 2017, was the accusation that through its financing of Hamas, Doha was aiding terrorism. There was then massive pressure exerted on Qatar to halt its financing of Hamas. It was perhaps the hopes of the UAE and its allies (such as Saudi Arabia) that through the blockade on Qatar its support for the Palestinian political party would cease and hence aid in the weakening of Hamas.
To the contrary, Hamas has only grown militarily stronger, as Iran picked up the bill and expanded its influence into the Gaza Strip. Whilst this was occurring, being forced to depend on different allies like Iran due to the blockade, Qatar had expanded its cooperation with the Islamic Republic. This is perhaps one of the primary reasons that US diplomatic efforts have been made to end the Saudi-Qatar dispute, after a failure of the desired regional goals with the blockade.
But Saudi Arabia’s restoration of ties with Qatar was not only motivated by such a failure to overcome Qatar, but also in order to extend an olive branch to the incoming Biden administration in the United States, which reportedly looks to re-enter the JCPOA/Iran Nuclear Deal. If Saudi Arabia is seen to be creating barriers to regional stability, this could mean a less favorable relationship with the incoming administration.
This shift by Saudi Arabia has not been the only move perhaps viewed as provocative by the UAE, following what was supposed to be a secret meeting in the Saudi city of Neom between Israeli and Saudi delegations; the KSA has reportedly closed off all communications.
Saudi Arabia is at least appearing to become more hostile to Israel, following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s media circus revealing that there were secret meetings. Due to Saudi Arabia not seeing fit to establish official ties with Israel at this time, it looked likely that Netanyahu, desperate for a political victory, had paraded the meeting around as a victory. For a country (Saudi Arabia) not yet ready to be seen as an ally of Israel, especially whilst attempting to be the centre of Sunni Islam, Netanyahu’s theatrics did not impress. This has now resulted in a renewed effort from Saudi Arabia to apply pressure on Israel, in the form of condemning their illegal settlement expansion.
Whether or not the shift away direct normalization of ties is simply a facade meant to restore some credibility, Saudi Arabia still allows for Israeli’s to travel to the country and for Israel to use its airspace. It is clear that Saudi Arabia is now shy to please Israel publicly.
Part of this shift is again to do with Iran, which is its sworn enemy. Saudi Arabia has – especially during the Trump era – been part of an aggressively anti-Iran axis along with the UAE, Israel, the US and Egypt. Now that Biden is coming into office, however, it seems that Saudi Arabia is attempting to prevent an escalation which could put itself in a dangerous position, but in the process, not pleasing the UAE.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has also been at odds with the UAE, despite now having formed a ‘unity government’ including within it the Saudi-backed Hadi government and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC). The ‘unity government’ formed in December 2020, composed of two groups at war in Yemen’s southern city of Aden, is already showing signs of a coming division.
The recent terror designation by the US Trump administration of the other largest player in Yemen, known as the ‘Houthis’ or Ansarallah, also further complicates the issue for Saudi Arabia. The US designation was interestingly supported by the UAE, with Saudi Arabia now having to bear the brunt of many diplomatic and military hurdles ahead of it, with the prospects of peace talks now made virtually impossible.
All around, Saudi Arabia seems to be under pressure, as the UAE has largely surpassed it as the West’s most important Persian Gulf asset. It will now be interesting to see what direction Joe Biden chooses when it comes to Iran, Yemen and its future relationship with Saudi Arabia.
For now it is clear that Saudi Arabia has not exactly benefitted from its blockade of Yemen, and previously Qatar, and the Trump era has created many disasters, as well as embarrassments, for the KSA. Right now, inside of Saudi Arabia, there are such serious divisions within the Royal family and along its journey to becoming a more transparent puppet of the West, that it is beginning to bring many of its hidden problems into the spotlight.