Saudi Arabia Reopens Relations, Border with Qatar
After nearly four years of a harsh blockade, a Saudi-led coalition lifted its blockade against Qatar, opening its air, land, and sea borders to Qatar. The changes went into effect on January 4, 2021.
Kuwait and the United States mediated the deal between the two sides which resulted in the resumption of diplomatic and economic relations between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt.
The blockade began in 2017 after Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of supporting terrorist groups including ISIS and al-Qaida. While support for terrorism was the official reason for the blockade, relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar had chilled over the previous years with Saudi Arabia fearing that its power in the region was threatened.
Not only did the blockade have an immense impact on geopolitics, but it also challenged Qatar economically. Despite the blockade, Qatar performed well economically with the International Monetary Fund stating Qatar “successfully absorbed the shocks” from the Saudi-led blockade.
While Qatar looked inward economically during this period, the renewed connections between economic powers in the region will give a major boost to certain flagship industries in the region.
Qatar Airways, owned by the state of Qatar, is the most well-known Qatari-owned entity around the world, and it suffered massively due to the blockade.
Due to the blockade, Qatar Airways had to not just avoid landing in Saudi Arabia and other countries, but it had to completely avoid flying in their airspace. This resulted in roundabout routes for Qatar Airways that hampered its ability to provide its service.
After one year of the blockade, Qatar Airways reported a $69 million loss in 2018 due to the Gulf State blockade.
With 2020 dealing a devastating blow to the airline industry at large, the lifting of the blockade could not come at a better time for Qatar Airways. Even before all impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are factored in, the financial year ending on March 31 saw record losses for Qatar Airways, with nearly $2 billion in losses.
The airline has not wasted time in rebuilding air routes with Saudi Arabia lifting the air space ban. Four days after the announcement was made, Qatar Airways began rerouting through Saudi airspace.
While air links between the countries have yet to be restored, the opening of airspace to Qatar means the next step will be commercial flights between Qatar and the other Gulf States.
One of the major sticking points between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been the latter’s close ties with Iran. However, Qatar has stated that it will not change its relations with Iran or Turkey, two of Saudi Arabia’s biggest regional rivals.
Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, told the Financial Times, “bilateral relationships are mainly driven by a sovereign decision of the country… [and] the national interest.”
While he insisted that Qatar made few concessions in the diplomatic deal, al-Thani said that Qatar would cooperate with the Saudi-led coalition on counterterrorism and regional security.
The Saudi blockade listed many demands related to Iran, including demands for Qatar to shut down diplomatic relations with Iran, kick out Iranian military members, and abide by the United States sanctions on Iran. Despite Qatar refusing to do so, the two sides were able to strike a deal to start the new year.
Throughout the blockade, Iran and Qatar’s ties deepened as Qatar became more reliant on Iran’s air space and economy while it was shunned by its neighbours. The blockade clearly failed to pull Qatar away from Iran, and the Saudi-American coalition may see the resumption of diplomatic relations as a necessity to decrease Qatar’s reliance on Iran.
During the blockade Qatar and Turkey have also strengthened ties, a development seen as unfavorable for Saudi Arabia as its rift grows with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Qatar stood strong and conceded very little of what it was asked to do when the Saudi coalition first released its list of demands in 2017.
Reports have indicated that Saudi Arabia is leading the push to reopen relations with Qatar in order to impress the incoming Biden administration. Others in the coalition including the UAE have expressed reluctance considering Qatar’s growing ties with Turkey.
Along with Kuwait, the United States was a mediator in the dispute between the two sides with the Americans concerned about Iran’s potential to gain due to the dispute. The Trump administration, continuing in America’s traditional foreign policy, has been hawkish towards Iran and saw the blockade as strengthening its foe.
However, the Trump administration has worked closely with Saudi Arabia and infamously failed to distance itself from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Foreign policy observers believe a Biden presidency will be less forgiving to Saudi Arabia while still focusing on containing Iran. Therefore, rapprochement with Qatar is viewed as a necessity in Riyadh to stabilize relations with Washington.
According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the blockade coalition that is actively opening airspace to Qatar.
With other countries still more critical and less concerned about their American relations, the diplomatic crisis is not completely over for Qatar. The UAE is looking to remain critical of Qatar for its links with Turkey and Iran.
“The thaw may do little to dampen competition between Qatar and the UAE, and their respective allies in regional hotspots,” said Elham Fakhro, senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group.
With that said, business will be returning to Qatar with airspace and travel expected to be opened by other states in the coalition despite their cold feet compared to the most powerful in the group, Saudi Arabia.