Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets Qatar’s Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani during the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) 40th Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 10, 2019. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS
Qatar’s prime minister attended a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in the most concrete sign yet of a possible thaw in a regional dispute, but the meeting ended without public mention of the 2-1/2 year row.
Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani’s presence, the most senior Qatari to attend the annual gathering since 2017, follows an intensification of efforts to resolve the row among U.S. allies. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and non-GCC member Egypt imposed a political and economic boycott of Qatar in June 2017 over allegations Doha backs terrorism. Qatar denies that and accuses them of trying to curtail its sovereignty.
Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which shattered the GCC alliance and undermined Washington’s efforts to form a united front against Iran, which is locked in a struggle for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.
A senior regional official told Reuters that Kuwait recently was working “extremely hard to come up with reconciliation… supported by the United States”. Efforts to end the row, including talks between Qatar’s foreign minister and Saudi officials in October, appeared to intensify after attacks in September on Saudi oil plants that initially halved the kingdom’s output and heightened regional tensions.
Riyadh and Washington blame Iran for the assault as well as earlier strikes this year on tankers in Gulf waters. Tehran denies involvement.
Saudi King Salman, who earlier afforded the Qatari prime minister a traditional welcome, called for regional unity to confront Iran and secure energy supplies and maritime channels. A closed-door meeting lasted less than 20 minutes before a final communique echoed the need to boost military and security cooperation and pledged to create a financial and monetary bloc by 2025.
After it was read out, Kuwait’s ruling emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who has long pressed to resolve the Qatar dispute, commended the call for unity. Addressing King Salman, he said: “God willing, the coming meetings will be better than past meetings.” Two sources familiar with Saudi thinking said Riyadh has softened its stance on a list of 13 demands to lift the embargo, including that Doha cut links to the Muslim Brotherhood, close Al Jazeera TV, shutter a Turkish military base and reduce ties with Iran, with whom Qatar shares a giant gas field.
But little is known about the current state of negotiations, and the UAE and Egypt may still refuse to yield. “The onus lies with the one that caused the crisis, to reconsider erroneous policies that led to its isolation,” senior Emirati official Anwar Gargash tweeted on Monday. A Western diplomat said the summit was unlikely to bring an immediate end to the dispute.
The Qatari premier last visited Saudi Arabia in May for an emergency summit to discuss regional security following an attack on tankers in Gulf waters.