Skip to main content
Support

GCC Blockade on Qatar Lifted: Trump’s Last Mideast Diplomatic Victory, Thanks (Partly) to President-Elect Biden

David Ottaway image

The six Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council have ended their internal 42-month-long squabble over Qatar’s breakaway foreign policy. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are lifting their air, land and sea blockade on their fellow GCC member, but this may prove to be little more than a temporary cease-fire rather than a permanent resolution to their rift. Some see it as a gambit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to make peace with President-elect Joe Biden as much as a genuine rapprochement with its neighbor.

None of the underlying issues that provoked the 2017 blockade of Qatar have been resolved. Nor have any of the 13 demands set for lifting it been met.

None of the underlying issues that provoked the 2017 blockade of Qatar have been resolved. Nor have any of the 13 demands set for lifting it been met. The Trump administration’s primary objective of ending the GCC feud to create a united Arab front against Iran in the Persian Gulf remains elusive.

Saudi Arabia seems to have imposed its will on its three Gulf Arab allies by unilaterally lifting its own blockade the night before an agreement was announced at the GCC summit on Tuesday, held in the Saudi desert resort of Al-Ula (Saudi Arabia is the only GCC state sharing a land border with Qatar). Egypt, which had also joined the blockade, sent only its foreign minister, possibly to show discontent at being shoved aside in the negotiations –almost exclusively carried out by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with strong backing from the Trump administration.

One objective of ending the blockade is to eliminate a major irritant in current Saudi-US relations before Biden takes office on January 20. The president elect has promised to render the crown prince an international “pariah” over his role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and to terminate U.S. support for his war in Yemen. The Yemen conflict, intended to dislodge Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from the capital, Sanaa has turned into the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

However, the immediate impact of lifting the blockade will be felt by Qatar, allowing its commercial aircraft to once again cross Saudi Arabia on flights westward to Europe and the United States, thereby ending a $100 million annual payment to Iran to reroute flights through its air space.

They also sought to end the disarray within the GCC in order to present a united Gulf Arab front against Iran and thereby increase pressure to re-negotiating the 2015 agreement limiting its nuclear program.

Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all been pressing relentlessly for over a year to end the blockade of Qatar, where the U.S. Central Command has its forward headquarters at Al-Udeid Airbase. They also sought to end the disarray within the GCC in order to present a united Gulf Arab front against Iran and thereby increase pressure to re-negotiating the 2015 agreement limiting its nuclear program. Trump disparaged that deal as “the worst ever” in American diplomatic history. He withdrew the United States from the accord in May 2018 while launching a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic and financial sanctions to force Iran into accepting stronger limits to its nuclear program and its other military capabilities, so far to no avail.

Despite the heady rhetoric of renewed GCC “solidarity” touted by the Saudi crown prince, the six Gulf Arab monarchs remain fundamentally divided in their attitude toward Iran. While Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Emirates supported Trump’s confrontational policy, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman have long espoused accommodation and prevention of conflict. The latter three will certainly welcome Biden’s plan for the United States to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and ease tensions with Tehran.

Details of the GCC agreement have not been published. What is known so far is that the blockade will be lifted, and Qatar will end its lawsuit in international courts against the four Arab nations which support it. There may also have been an agreement for both sides to end their bitter propaganda wars against each other. But there is scant evidence that Qatar has been chastened by its neighbors’ blockade into changing its foreign policy.  Instead, the blockade has mostly served to strengthen Qatar’s drive for a foreign policy independent of that dictated by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

There seems to be have been no change offered by Qatar, either, in its nurturing of stronger ties with Iran and Turkey or toward supporting the Muslim Brotherhood which those monarchies regard as a “terrorist” organization.

The blockade led Qatar, which shares a huge Gulf gas field with Iran, to expand its economic ties with Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy, and to give a military base to Turkey, another rival to Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony. Qatar has not shut down Al-Jazeera, the Doha-based news channel that has infuriated the Saudi and Emirati monarchies by airing criticism of their rules. There seems to be have been no change offered by Qatar, either, in its nurturing of stronger ties with Iran and Turkey or toward supporting the Muslim Brotherhood which those monarchies regard as a “terrorist” organization.

Whether lifting the blockade of Qatar will help assuage Biden’s open hostility toward Mohammed bin Salman remains to be seen. There are many other obstacles standing in the way. Biden is expected to create a diplomatic opening to Iran, actively promote democracy and human rights abroad, and threaten to suspend U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its war in Yemen. The Biden-MBS relationship seems destined to face a rocky start.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

David Ottaway image

David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Washington Post Middle East Correspondent
Read More

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more