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The Arab Quartet walks back its failed boycott



On Monday it was announced that the three-and-a-half year blockade of Qatar will be lifted. The “Arab Quartet” of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain agreed to lift the boycott following negotiations in Kuwait. UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, was among those taking to Twitter to praise a “historic summit” which secured the return of “Gulf unity”.


Let’s be in no doubt: the whole saga has been a failure for all involved from start to finish. It is reason for relief, but nothing to celebrate. After all the money and effort spent and lost as a result of the blockade, what was the big deal-breaking concession the quartet received? Qatar has promised not to sue them for the boycott.


When the blockade was imposed, the world was taken aback. The unilateral decision of Saudi-Arabia and its cohorts to impose a blockade on a key US ally in the region was without precedent. This was a year before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salam, then aged 32, had a more confident swagger than he does now. The Qatari boycott was just one manifestation of the brash, Machiavellian policies he tended towards at home and abroad.


Qatar had been rubbing him up the wrong way for sometime. An interlocutor with Saudi’s two biggest adversaries, Turkey and Iran and a supporter of the Muslim brotherhood, Qatar had become a thorn in the eastern side of Saudi Arabia.


The plan was an overwhelming display of force. Saudi cut off Qatar’s only land border, refused airspace to its numerous passenger jets, and led an economic boycott that cost the Gulf sheikhdom billions of dollars. Riyadh demanded that Doha shut down Al Jazeera, renounce its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, abandon military coordination with Turkey and its political relationship with Iran.


Onlookers were, on the whole, appalled. The US was annoyed that Qatar, home to the largest US airbase in the region, was being shafted. International commentators likened the move to “bullying”, confirming, in the minds of many, Saudi Arabia’s position as a pariah state.


And in any case the plan didn’t work. Qatar refused to agree to the demands and launched a counter sue against the quartet for damages to its economy. Unable to fly over Saudi Arabia, Qatar instead gave millions to Iran to use its airspace. This was bad for Qatar, sure, but funneling much-needed hard currency into the Iranian government was not what Saudi had intended either. Cut off from its neighbours, Qatar came to rely more on its friends in Tehran and Ankara. Conversely, the boycott made the very relationships it was launched to sever even stronger.


As usual, US analysts are at work to explain how America sits at the centre of this decision. Most suggest that the move is a Saudi peace-offering to Biden who has long criticised the blockade and Saudi policy in general. Trump supporters will argue that Trump’s nepotistic envoy Jared Kushner is helping to secure a strong Israeli-Arab coalition to face down Iran. That two presidents with widely different approaches to Middle East policy can both claim the decision to abandon the boycott as a victory is further proof of its ultimate futility for all involved.


For any face-saving speeches that may come out over the next few weeks the deal is, at best, an orderly retreat from a botched attack; nothing has been gained and much has been lost. It is possible Qatar will throw Saudi Arabia a few crumbs, perhaps toning down coverage of the kingdom on Al Jazeera. But claims that the deal is a boon for “Gulf unity” are utterly disingenuous. The whole fiasco has set back Qatar-Arab relations for years to come. Qatari diplomats will not soon forget this episode, who stood with them and who didn’t.


Arguably, it is Iran that has gained the most from this. Tehran will now lose out on those airspace millions, but it was the blockade that put that money in their pocket in the first place. Disunity on the other side of the Persian Gulf plays well in Tehran. While Iran hates for Qatar to walk away, it loves to watch it leave.


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