Saudi Arabia Will Reopen Borders With Qatar, Easing a Regional Rift
After a rift that has fractured the Arab world and tested American diplomacy for more than three years, Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen its borders and airspace to Qatar on Monday night after boycotting it since 2017, Kuwaiti, Qatari and American officials said Monday.
A senior Trump administration official said the announcement was a prelude to a broader agreement to end Qatar’s isolation from its Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. Such an agreement could be announced at a regional summit meeting in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
The agreement announced Monday would allow for commerce and travel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the first time since the four countries blockaded Qatar in June 2017, accusing its rulers of supporting terrorism and Islamists in the region, and of getting too close to Iran, their enemy.
The Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, said in a statement on Monday that the summit meeting would “close the ranks and unify the stance” of the Gulf countries, hinting that more reconciliation was to follow. It also pointed to the Saudis’ hope for a united front to counter Iran.
Qatar’s royal court announced Monday night that its emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, would attend the summit in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday.
The senior Trump administration official and a Gulf official who asked not to be identified in order to discuss diplomatic negotiations said further steps to open borders between Qatar and the Emirates and Bahrain were expected on Tuesday. But the final shape of the deal, which has been under discussion for several months, was still in flux.
Little has changed since 2017 to address complaints by Saudi Arabia and its allies about Qatar, which Qatar denied. That raises the question of what the boycott accomplished — and whether any solution that failed to resolve the underlying disputes would last.
When they began the boycott, the kingdom and its allies presented Qatar with a list of 13 wide-ranging demands that included closing its broadcast network, Al Jazeera, cooling its relations with Iran, cutting off contact with Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and ending its support for terrorism.
Qatar denied supporting terrorists, and argued that it would be unreasonable to sever ties with Iran, a major trading partner that shares a border and a large offshore natural gas field with Qatar. With regard to the Brotherhood, the Qataris insisted that they were being punished for maintaining an independent foreign policy sympathetic to democratic movements.
By Monday, however, the senior Trump administration official said, the Qataris had agreed only to drop the country’s international lawsuits against the blockading countries, including a case at the International Court of Justice that claims the boycott amounts to discrimination against Qataris.
In Washington, the announcement was seen as good news. Arriving during the transition from one American president to another, the deal sits at a rare overlap of interests for President Trump, whose administration has been urging its allies to stop quarreling and unify against Iran, and President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose team would prefer not to inherit a crisis centered on one of the globe’s most strategic regions.
Given the absence of major concessions from Qatar, “I don’t think that the Saudis are going to come away looking like they made some sort of great foreign policy move a few years ago,” said Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a Middle East analyst at the Royal Services Institute in London, “but they will get kudos for pulling back from it now in D.C.”
President Trump initially praised the boycott as a step against terrorism, but later opposed it, seeing it as a break in what he hoped would be a united regional front against Iran. Qatar is also strategically important to the United States because it hosts a major American military base.
Hoping to further squeeze Iran before the end of Mr. Trump’s presidency, administration officials have made a concerted push for Saudi Arabia and its allies to negotiate with Qatar over the last few months. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, visited Doha and Riyadh in December to cajole Gulf officials, and he scrambled to help salvage the deal after a last-minute dispute on Sunday threatened to undo the agreement, according to the administration official.
Mr. Kushner was scheduled to attend Tuesday’s summit meeting along with the administration’s Middle East peace negotiator, Avi Berkowitz, and Brian Hook, the administration’s former envoy for Iran affairs, who is now an unpaid government adviser.
Kuwait, which announced the opening on Monday, has also been serving as a mediator. Its foreign minister, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, said in a televised statement that the agreement between Saudi Arabi and Qatar would be a “new page in brotherly relations.”
Officials from Saudi Arabia did not immediately confirm that there was an agreement between the two countries.
The Gulf countries’ decision in 2017 to cut ties with Qatar, severing diplomatic relations and suspending land, air and sea travel, forced the tiny monarchy into immediate crisis. Trade and commerce that used to flow smoothly around the Gulf fell apart; some families were abruptly left unable to see relatives who lived on the other side of the divide; thousands of people had to leave their homes practically overnight to return to Qatar or the other countries.
Since then, however, Qatar has leaned on its enormous natural gas wealth to become more self-sufficient and build stronger relationships with both Iran and Turkey, another foe of the blockading countries, the United Arab Emirates in particular.
Combined with the pressure from Washington, the path for negotiations grew clearer in recent months, with officials on both sides signaling that talks were progressing. And analysts said Saudi Arabia may have seen mending the break as a way to begin the kingdom’s relationship with the incoming Biden administration, which has threatened to take a tougher line on Saudi Arabia, on a positive note.
But some analysts say there is little to suggest Qatar will change its behavior when it comes to the practices that most frustrate its neighbors — neither fully reining in the megaphone it uses to spread its message and pester its enemies, the Al Jazeera media network, nor pulling away from Iran and Turkey.
Getting Qatar to modify its relationship with Turkey “may prove wishful thinking,” Hussein Ibish, an analyst at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote in December. “Given the number of issues likely to remain unresolved, there is significant potential for future discord and perhaps another crisis over Qatari policies sometime in the foreseeable future.”
Still, Dr. Hellyer said, it was possible Qatar would rethink its embrace of Iran and Turkey and tone down its media messaging as relations with its Gulf neighbors warmed.
According to Mr. al-Sabah, the agreement calls for Saudi Arabia to allow Qatar Airways to fly over its airspace, which would carry geopolitical as well as symbolic weight: not only would Qatari planes spend less time flying convoluted routes from Doha to avoid off-limits airspace, but Iran would lose up to $100 million in annual fees Qatar has been paying to fly over Iran instead, at a time when Iran’s economy is already suffering under stringent American sanctions.