The 41st GCC Summit held in Al-Ula city in northwestern Saudi Arabia on January 5, 2021, ended the blockade on Qatar that was imposed by KSA, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt on June 5, 2017. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen argues that Qatar’s 2022 World Cup played a significant role in terminating the blockade. It would be unfair to belittle the World Cup’s importance because it solidly put Qatar on the World map and made it challenging to blockade the country with impunity. Nevertheless, I am inclined to assert that the World Cup’s impact on lifting the blockade is secondary, and the decisive reason is political.
If not jealousy, envy has traditionally marred the GCC countries’ interstate interactions. Still, the formulation of their foreign policy is more nuanced than Dhahi Khalfan’s claim that Qatar’s blockade sought to sabotage the World Cup and relocate it elsewhere. In 2014, in what became a prelude to the blockade, the blockading nations recalled their ambassadors from Doha for eight months to protest Qatar’s regional policy. They patched up their differences until these eventually exploded in 2017. The four countries imposed the blockade to undermine Qatar’s independent foreign policy. They were less concerned about the World Cup than Qatar’s political choices that did not suit them well.
Qatar’s bumpy relations with its Gulf neighbors go back to the late eighteenth century when, in 1793, the first Saudi state invaded it. In 1867, Qatar went to war against Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and secured its independence. Qatar’s maritime and land conflict with Bahrain dragged from 1936 until 2001. In 1992, the Saudis seized the Khafus border post from Qatar, and the issue still awaits resolution.
Qatar’s position in backing pan-Arab political issues triggered the blockade, and the election of Joe Biden paved the way for ending it. Former US President Donald Trump’s strict foreign policy toward Iran—not only on its nuclear and missile programs but also interventionist regional policy—coincided with KSA and UAE, let alone Israel.
Rightly or wrongly, KSA and UAE believe that Biden will revive President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, including returning to JCPOA, even if under different terms. Obama viewed US ties with Qatar as extraordinary, and Prince Tamim as a trusted partner. During his presidential campaign, Biden did not hide his criticism for the blockade and the Saudi Crown Prince’s policies.
Trump was insincere in trying to end the blockade. His son-in-law Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and his successor Mike Pompeo made many fruitless visits to the GCC countries to end the conflict. Biden’s victory at the polls changed the region’s political scene overnight. The quartet lifted its blockade and resumed its diplomatic relations with Qatar. The policy shift is dramatic. The hostility that characterized the relations between the quartet and Turkey since the Arab uprisings seems to be inching toward normalization, which is difficult to attribute to the World Cup. The region’s countries are repositioning themselves to deal with a new administration in Washington that is keen on undoing Trump’s legacy.
Ending the blockade and resuming diplomatic ties are welcome developments, but alone they are unlikely to resolve the GCC countries’ recurring problems. Such a momentous task requires political maturity, vision, and economic integration, not rivalry. Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup is a remarkable accomplishment and lends credence to its investment in sports. Together with the Education City, avant-garde media, and political resilience, Qatar finds its path in a very complicated region.
Article by Hilal Khashan, Professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut.
Hilal Khashan is a Professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut. He is the author of six books, including Hizbullah: A Mission to Nowhere (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2019). He has more than 150 articles published in journals, such as The Journal of Conflict Resolution, The Scientific Journal of Religion, Orbis, Security Dialogue, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, International Affairs, World Affairs, Middle East Quarterly, Shia Affairs Journal, Il Politico, and Geopolitical Futures. He is currently completing a book titled Saudi Arabia: The Dilemma of Political Change and the Illusion of Economic Development.
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