Riyadh (AFP) - A UN court's ruling in favour of Qatar over an airspace dispute marks another setback for Saudi-led blockading nations, but despite rising international pressure to end the three-year feud, the group appears unlikely to relent.
US-led mediation efforts have come to nothing amid reported opposition from the United Arab Emirates, frustrating Washington, which has tried to unite its allies and focus on its main strategic goal -- reining in arch-foe Iran.
On Tuesday, the International Court of Justice, the UN's highest judicial body, backed Qatar in a bitter row over an air blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt at the start of a regional crisis in 2017.
The ruling came after the World Trade Organization last month rapped Riyadh for failing to protect intellectual property rights of Qatari-owned broadcaster beIN, as it refused to crack down on a bootlegging network.
The double hit raises fresh questions as to the effectiveness of the blockade, now in its fourth year despite Washington's pleas that the dispute undercuts its efforts to challenge Iran.
"The ICJ decision marks another blow for the Saudi-led quartet," Nabeel Nowairah, a Washington-based independent analyst, told AFP.
"It reflects their weak evidence and justification when presented before these internationally recognised bodies."
The ICJ ruling allows Qatar to challenge airspace restrictions imposed by the Riyadh-led group in a hearing before the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN aviation body.
Qatar said the ruling meant the blockading states will "finally face justice" for violating aviation rules.
- Airspace fees -
The forced rerouting of Qatar Airways flights does more than add to the airline's fuel bill.
Qatar contributes to the approximately $133 million that Iranian media says Tehran receives annually for overflight rights, undermining US President Donald Trump's maximum pressure campaign to economically squeeze Iran.
"We have been focused and working on trying to patch up the Gulf rift," David Schenker, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told the Middle East Institute last month.
"We believe it is a distraction (and) takes focus away from our common threats... We do not think it is (productive) for Qatar to be paying airspace fees to Iran."
Washington was close to brokering an agreement to end the blockade this month after high-level discussions with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, Fox News reported last week.
But at the last minute, the UAE asked Saudi Arabia to withhold support, it said, without giving a reason.
Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
If the secret talks are confirmed, it marks a second breakdown of efforts to end the rift after a similar Saudi-Qatar dialogue in late 2019 failed.
"Much of the animosity that generated the blockade in 2017 originated in Abu Dhabi more than in Riyadh, and... the rift can only fully end when the leadership in the UAE is ready to move on," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute in the United States.
With Riyadh "balancing US pressure to lift the airspace restrictions with Emirati pressure to maintain blockade unity, the Saudi leadership may prevaricate on the issue to avoid having to take a difficult decision either way."
- 'Put pride aside' -
The quartet snapped diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing it, among other things, of forging close relations with Iran -- a charge Doha denies.
It issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar, including shutting down the TV station Al Jazeera and downgrading relations with Turkey, which American officials say were difficult to meet.
But the blockade designed to choke Qatar and force it to align with Gulf interests has only pushed the tiny emirate closer to Iran and Turkey, observers say. It has also hurt Saudi strategic interests.
The WTO ruling could scupper a proposed 300-million-pound ($370-million) Saudi-backed takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United.
Following the decision, English Premier League football chief executive Richard Masters admitted that the proposed takeover was "complicated".
"Put your pride aside and end it already," said Michael Stephens, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute, referring to the quartet.
"Nothing significant has been achieved, and it's increasingly clear that many legal aspects of this were poorly thought out, and they do have consequences. There are bigger problems to solve."