The Qatar—Saudi Agreement at First Glance: Everybody Wins | Opinion

Middle East watchers have long expected the Qatari-Saudi normalization agreement, as Washington wanted its allies to reconcile, even as Doha stonewalled the attempts by Riyadh to accept the Thirteen Demands the coalition of four Arab states presented the gas-rich emirate in 2017. Then, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain demanded that Qatar curb diplomatic relations with Iran, stop military cooperation with Iran, and expel the members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from the emirate.

Qatar was requested to sever ties with several organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Al Qaeda and Lebanon's Hezbollah, and formally declare all of them "terrorist". Terrorists from the region were to no longer be eligible for Qatari citizenship, as was the practice for years. The Kingdom and its allies also demanded that Doha shut down Al Jazeera, affiliated stations, and other Qatari-fuded media outlets.

Furthermore, the "Quartet" demanded that Qatar terminates its military cooperation with Turkey and expel the Turkish military from the country. There were also demands for reparations and frequent audit of Qatari finances. As Doha resisted the pressure, Saudi Arabia has imposed a blockade onQatar, on land, sea, and air. Qatar, for its part continued its ties with its neighbor Iran, and expanded its ties with Turkey. As the host of the largest U.S. naval base in the Persian Gulf, and home to a 3,000-strong Turkish military contingent, Doha was secure from a Saudi invasion.

Now, two weeks before Trump is to leave the White House, the U.S. and Kuwait have brokered and announced the first step in the reconciliation between Qatar and its neighbors. The signing will take place Tuesday January 5 at the 41st Gulf Cooperaiton Council summit in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar will attend – the first time he visits Qatar's big neighbor since the breakdown.

At the first glance, Doha gave up little and gained much. Saudi Arabia is opening the borders, boosting trade. Qatar will drop litigation it started in the aftermath of the 2017 sanctions. Both sides will tone down their media and cease from attacking each other as they did daily so far. The incoming Biden Administration is expected to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, and Riadh decided to conclude the negotiations with Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and Senior Adviser, still playing a key mediating role.

Analysts in Washington see the agreement between the Arab neighbors in the Gulf as a step forward and a sign of things to come.

Although aligned in many ways with Iran, Turkey and Hezbollah, Qatar has been a major American ally in the Persian Gulf; Al Udeid Air Base is the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. It has been a Trump administration priority to have its allies not feud with one another - reducing the possibility of American forces wasting time and capability fighting smaller fires when the real issues are freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, which is under threat from Iran, and Iran's determination to build nuclear weapons capability. The Qatar-Saudi deal is a huge step in the right direction. If managed properly, will make it easier for the U.S. to do the big things without distraction. It also gives Iran hives - the value of which cannot be overstated, Shoshana Bryen, a Middle East security expert and a Senior Director at the Jewish Policy Center, a Republican-affiliated think tank in Washington, tells me.

"The opening of borders is key. Aviation space and sea ports benefit the most because of trade volume. Saudi Arabia is in the midst of expanding its port infrastructure and shipping lines to reach further into Africa and South Asia. Qatar can benefit from these logistic lines in addition to the throughput from those developed during the blockade," says Dr. Theodore Karasik, a veteran Gulf watcher, and a Senior Adviser to Gulf State Analytics, a consultancy in Washington, D.C.

Yet, geopolitical and religious competition between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates will remain at a pretty high pitch. With that fact in mind, the end of litigation by Qatar and a mutual toning down of info-war is a major step forward—if it can persevere.

The UAE may also win out from the agreement: the lifting of the blockade comes in time for Dubai 2021 Expo. The opening of routes between Dubai and Doha is key to both city states. The Qatar World Cup 2020 is a major regional event. So the interconnectivity of both is now especially necessary for economic recovery. That is an added financial benefit for Abu Dhabi, moving forward, Karasik says. Nevertheless, the UAE-Israeli normalization process is still the overarching architecture for the region.

Kuwait, the mediator, also appears to be the winner when it comes to the Al Ula GCC summit. The Kuwaitis worked very hard to make the 41st GCC Summit a success, which is why Kuwaiti Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah is attending the summit.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is attending with his father, King Salman, because MBS is the one who is promoting al-Ula as the 41st GCC Summit meeting location. MBS is seeking to put al-Ula on the world map as a center of negotiations.

Importantly, US and Gulf diplomatic activity helped to move other negotiation points along for discussion at 41st Gulf Summit. Diplomatic sources have disclosed that the Bahrain-Qatar de-escalation on maritime disputes is to be discussed. The two countries' Coast Guard ships have fired upon each other in their adjacent waters in the past two weeks leading to mutual accusations, and ultimately Qatar reporting the violations to the United Nations. That behavior is now likely to stop. MBS discussed the Bahraini-Qatari maritime dispute with the Bahraini Crown Prince during the First Saudi-Bahrain Cooperation Council meeting this past week. Movement on this divisive issue between Manama and Doha is likely to be part of the GCC Summit outcome.

Given that the 41st GCC Summit is really about MBS's vision and the al-Ula location, the Saudis had hoped that all Gulf monarchs would participate. But the summit may go beyond that and become historic, as Emir Tamim's attendance at the al-Ula Summit to sign an agreement on the lowering of tensions with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States might inspire "a walk back" from other contentious issues.

Dr. Karasik believes that the 41st GCC Summit will also focus on Saudi relations with Turkey and Iran. MBS wanted Doha to help Saudi Arabia with revamping frayed relations with Turkey and Iran. A diplomatic source in the Gulf said that "Now the Qataris can play a proactive role between Saudi Arabia and Turkey." In regards to Iran, the Al-Ula Summit is to "harness the unity of the GCC" in terms of collective defense against outside powers.

The COVID-19 pandemic focuses the GCC heads of states' attention on their recovery efforts, and even Iran looks positively at Qatar's negotiation with Saudi Arabia because the GCC summit agreements puts Doha in a potent position to negotiate between Tehran and the United States under the Biden Administration.

The relationships between the Gulf states will continue to be wrought with divisions. J. Adam Ereli, the former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain, summarizes it best: "The reconciliation agreement is a big diplomatic win for the United States and a significant step forward for the GCC. It is undeniable, however, that underlying causes of the rift will not be so easily repaired. Lack of trust, personal animosities, divergent world views and competing political agendas will continue to bedevil the alliance."

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow (non-resident) at The Atlantic Council and Director, Program on Energy, Growth and Security at International Tax and Investment Center. He is the Founding Principal of International Market Analysis.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.