At the start of 2020, talks to end the years-long Gulf diplomatic crisis abruptly came to an end.
For nearly a whole year, the regional rift between Qatar and a Saudi-led alliance remained in a stalemate as countries focused their efforts on combating the coronavirus pandemic.
But earlier this month, reports of a potential deal to resolve the dispute has raised questions about what a preliminary agreement would entail, and who exactly would it involve.
Reports of reconciliation come ahead of an upcoming GCC summit, scheduled to convene in the Saudi capital Riyadh on January 5.
The reports come nearly four years after an air, land and sea blockade was imposed on Qatar by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain as well as non-GCC member Egypt.
The four Arab countries claimed the blockade, which began on June 5, 2017, was imposed on Qatar for “supporting terrorism” and for being too close to Iran, among other things.
Qatar has repeatedly denied the allegations and said there was “no legitimate justification” for the severance of relations and accused its neighbours of attacking its sovereignty.
The blockading quartet also issued a list of 13 demands, including the closure of the Al Jazeera Media Network as well as a Turkish military base, which Qatar promptly rejected.
Earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said a resolution was in sight, with the four governments behind the blockade “on board” and a final agreement expected soon.
The GCC says Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has been invited to next month’s summit.
Analysts say the various players are approaching the crisis differently, but Riyadh has stood out as the one pushing for a resolution as it seeks to soften criticism from United States President-elect Joe Biden.
“Of the blockading states, Saudi Arabia likely finds itself under the most pressure to ease its stance against Qatar, especially as the kingdom worries about potential challenges from Washington in the post-Trump period,” Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based consulting firm, told Al Jazeera.
The kingdom’s efforts are also in sync with US President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration, which is trying to “score a diplomatic gain” in the Gulf, Cafiero, said.
Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, agreed.
“There is an interest in the White House to have an achievement especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia,” Zweiri told Al Jazeera.
Similarly, Jocelyn Sage Mitchell, assistant professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, said Saudi Arabia is aware that Biden’s administration “will rebalance US foreign policy in the region”.
The incoming administration will likely emphasise the “close ally relationship between the US and Qatar, given American economic, military, and educational interests in the country,” Mitchell told Al Jazeera.
Other reasons as to why the latest reconciliation efforts can be considered more serious than previous attempts, is the economic impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Mitchel said, especially the impact it had on “Saudi’s oil industry”.
Similarly, a reconciliation would help Qatar by enabling it to transport materials needed for the upcoming FIFA World Cup across the Saudi land border, she said.
Any incoming deal, however, will not come in the form of a comprehensive agreement – but rather a set of principles for negotiations or a more concrete move involving the reopening of air space to Qatar, sources familiar with the negotiations have said.
While Kuwait and Oman – two GCC states that have not joined the boycotting states – welcomed the latest efforts to reach an agreement, the other blockading nations seem to be less inclined to join Saudi Arabia – in particular the UAE.
“The UAE has its own agenda and has signalled a much harder line,” Mitchell said.
Cafiero also said that the UAE it is probably the “least willing to compromise in any real or significant way when it comes to this feud with Qatar”.
If Saudi Arabia decides to take steps to soften its stance, the anti-Qatar bloc will essentially begin “to crack”, he said.
Zweiri also noted that the course of the crisis will change if Riyadh decides to “act independently” from Abu Dhabi.
“The minute this happens it is a breakthrough in solving some of the issues related to the crisis,” he said, but the issues will focus on airspace while “other things may come gradually and slowly”.
‘Root causes’ remain
Doha has said that it would be willing to compromise with its neighbours, but has maintained that its sovereignty is a red line. It is in a strong negotiating position and any concessions it makes will “not include anything of significance,” Mitchel said.
“The fact is, the international community has not bought into the stated reasons behind this crisis, and the blockade has largely been deemed a strategic failure by all analysis,” she said.
But analysts are skeptical as to whether an agreement will be reached by the upcoming GCC summit on January 5, even though relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar seem to be moving forward.
“The need for the blockading countries to save face may prevent a quick resolution,” Mitchel said, adding that an important aspect of this is whether the UAE chooses to “bend its hard line”.
Both Zweiri and Cafiero believe that any deal will not have a lasting impact if the “root causes” of the dispute are not addressed.
“The root causes of the GCC crisis that erupted in 2017 will continue to fuel tension” between Qatar and its neighbours, Cafiero said.
Zweiri agreed, identifying the main root cause as “a huge difference on foreign policy” that will likely remain and maintain the current state of affairs.
“It might be just another summit … we have to see who will represent Qatar in the summit,” he said.
A main indicator of a lasting reconciliation will also be reflected in a more “coordinated stance” by GCC member states with regards to issues such as the war in Yemen, Zweiri said.
“[If there is a reconciliation] they should be more coordinated than divided,” he added.
And even while a reconciliation may seem imminent on the diplomatic level, there will be “tensions between societies in Qatar and the blockading states that carry on into the future,” Cafiero said.