Qatar Emir welcomed to Gulf summit with a hug by Saudi crown prince as three-and-a-half year blockade ends

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David Rose
·4 min read
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Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Saudi Arabia with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - Royal Council of Saudi Arabia/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Saudi Arabia with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - Royal Council of Saudi Arabia/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Emir of Qatar arrived in Saudi Arabia today to a warm embrace by the Saudi Crown Prince as the two leaders sought to end a protracted feud between Gulf countries.  

The meeting came just hours after Saudi Arabia opened its land, sea and air borders to Qatar on Monday night, allowing Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to attend a regional summit and sign a new “stability and solidarity” agreement.

Qatar has been shunned by neighbouring countries for more than three and a half years since Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates all imposed a boycott in 2017.

The four countries accused the small but wealthy peninsula nation of supporting Islamist terrorism - which Qatar has denied -  and becoming too close with their regional rival, Iran.

But footage of the Emir’s arrival in the north-western city of Al-Ula today showed Sheikh Tamim, 40, being tightly hugged by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the 35-year-old de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, even as both men wore face masks as a precaution against coronavirus.  

Along with regional leaders and ministers, President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner was also invited to attend today’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, after giving his support to Kuwaiti officials who have been mediating between the countries.

The two embraced despite wearing face masks to protect against the spread of Covid - BANDAR ALJALOUD/SAUDI ROYAL COURT HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The two embraced despite wearing face masks to protect against the spread of Covid - BANDAR ALJALOUD/SAUDI ROYAL COURT HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Crown Prince Mohammed, who hosted the summit on behalf of his father King Salman, said today: "These efforts helped us reach the agreement of the Al-Ula statement that will be signed at this summit, where we affirm our Gulf, Arab and Islamic solidarity and stability.

"There is a desperate need today to unite our efforts to promote our region and to confront challenges that surround us, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime's nuclear and ballistic missile programme and its plans for sabotage and destruction," he added. 

It is not clear what, if any, concessions Qatar has made to end the long-running dispute, which previously saw the boycotting nations demand that it close its influential television station, Al-Jazeera, and cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the international Islamist organisation.  

Sheikh Tamim has publicly resisted such demands, but the boycott left his country isolated, affecting supply chains, ending visa-free travel and separating families.

In advance of today’s summit, Egypt said it may now be willing to open its borders to Qatar, subject to “conditions” being met. According to US officials, the UAE and Bahrain would be expected to follow.  

Mr Kushner is likely to present the deal - between nations who all host American military bases or troops - as another foreign policy achievement by the Trump administration before his father-in-law leaves office.

Although Mr Trump failed to win Arab support for the Middle East peace plan he proclaimed as the “deal of the century”, the last year of his presidency has seen the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalise diplomatic ties with Israel, creating a united front against Iran.    

Behind the scenes, tensions are likely to remain between Qatar, which is due to host the FIFA World Cup next year, and its neighbours.

Qatar protested to the UN Security Council last month that Bahraini fighter jets had "violated" Qatari airspace. Bahrain has in turn accused Qatar's coast guard of arbitrarily detaining dozens of Bahraini fishing vessels.

Despite the Crown Prince’s warm body language, Saudi Arabia’s lifting of the boycott could also be intended more as a conciliatory signal to the US President-elect Joe Biden than regional politics, analysts said.

During his presidential election campaign, Mr Biden said he would take a harder line with the Gulf kingdom over its human rights record and military campaign in Yemen.

Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, the American think-tank, said that the rapprochement was “seemingly influenced by a desire to pre-empt pressure from an incoming Biden administration, more than a genuine commitment to conflict resolution."

"As such, the détente within the GCC is very unlikely to significantly affect geopolitical dynamics beyond the Gulf," he added.