Beneath Saudi officials’ tough talk on the Regional Headquarters Program lies a strong desire for constructive engagement with top global firms and attracting greater inflows of foreign investment.
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Since the January reconciliation agreement with its Gulf neighbors signed at Al Ula, Qatar has the perception it has gained newfound strength in the region. With the lifting of the boycott that was imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt in 2017, Qatar is aiming to promote greater cooperation with its neighbors and bolster the Gulf Cooperation Council. To expand its regional and global influence, Qatar aims to project an international brand of a responsible regional actor, neutral arbiter in regional disputes, and Middle East center for finance, international athletics, media, and tourism – similar to the United Arab Emirates. Qatar’s regional relations and foreign policies are characterized by small state strategies of hedging, balancing, and alliance building among regional and great powers. The Gulf Arab state has cultivated ties with countries like Iran and Turkey, especially since the 2017 boycott, a policy that has frustrated Gulf neighbors like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. As it moves forward on these strategies, it will also seek to assuage some of the frustrations of its Gulf Arab neighbors.
Three months after the signing of the agreement at Al Ula, there is evidence of both changes and continuity in Qatar’s regional relations and foreign policy. Overall, the agreement does seem to have helped mitigate some regional tensions and has cultivated greater dialogue within the GCC. The spirit of cooperation in the agreement also seems to be trickling down to tangential points of intra-GCC friction, such as tensions between Turkey and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but Qatar will likely remain cautious moving forward as major points of contention among the Gulf states still remain.
A New Regional Context
The recent heightened cooperation and commitment to quelling regional conflicts in the Middle East was motivated, in part, by the change of administration in the United States. Because many sources of tension were not addressed, some experts are concerned that the calls for GCC solidarity described in the Al Ula agreement will only temporarily paper over significant regional competition and conflict. Since the agreement was signed, and, more specifically, since the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was sworn in on January 20, Gulf states and other regional actors, including Turkey, seem to be open to greater dialogue to resolve a host of regional disputes.
Some of this may be more rhetoric than substantive action, but there is a notable shift in regional dynamics from the era of former President Donald J. Trump that was marked by transactional and aggressive foreign-policy maneuvering. There has since been progress in mending the GCC rift, with high-level meetings between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, and Qatar and Egypt. Additionally, a unity government has won approval in Libya – a difficult feat in a conflict marked by foreign intervention and proxy war involving Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia. Turkey and Greece have met for talks over eastern Mediterranean maritime disputes. And there seems to be preliminary signs of commitments toward greater cooperation between Turkey and strategic competitors like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Regional and global powers are increasing efforts at conflict resolution in Yemen. The current regional context seems more focused on conflict resolution, however only time will tell how long this spirit of cooperation will last.
Strengthened Ties With Turkey and Iran
During the nearly 4-year boycott of Qatar by its neighbors, Doha developed stronger ties with Tehran and Ankara, and these relationships will likely remain a key element of Qatar’s foreign policy. Ties with these two regional powers are in part a function of Qatar hedging between some of its Gulf Arab neighbors and their rivals. But more than that, Qatar needs regional support in case another incident like the 2017 boycott happens again, which is always a possibility given the history of Gulf rifts.
Trade volume and defense cooperation with Turkey have greatly expanded since the boycott. Qatar still benefits from the United States’ presence at Al Udeid air base – the largest U.S. military outpost in the Middle East. However, a Turkish air base, which can reportedly house up to 5,000 troops, was completed in Qatar in 2019. While Qatar benefits from Turkish security support, Turkey benefits from Qatari financial support. Amid Turkey’s financial woes in 2018, Qatar promised an investment package worth $15 billion to support Turkey’s banks and financial market. In 2020, the Qatar Investment Authority obtained a 10% stake in the Istanbul Stock Exchange and a 42% share of an Istanbul shopping mall. Qatar is now one of the top foreign investors in Turkey. Additionally, the value of bilateral trade between Qatar and Turkey increased by 85% from $1.3 billion in 2017 to $2.4 billion in 2018.
This bilateral relationship is increasingly important for Qatar and is rooted in shared security and economic interests. Furthermore, both countries’ interests aligned for a time over common rivals, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as some shared ideological interests in supporting Islamist-affiliated actors and governments to varying degrees since the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
While the 2017 boycott was in part intended to express dissatisfaction with Qatar for its ties with Iran, it instead pushed Doha and Tehran closer together. Iran sent food shipments to Qatar after the imposition of the boycott, and Qatar officially restored ties with Iran soon after the boycott started. Doha had recalled its ambassador from Iran in 2016 in response to attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Iran’s exports to Qatar increased from $60 million for the 2016-17 fiscal year to $250 million in 2017-18. And Qatar Airways used Iranian airspace to continue its operations. Moreover, Qatar and Iran share the largest gas field in the world, with Qatar promising to expand liquefied natural gas output by 40% per year by 2026. Maintaining ties with Iran, even if they have ebbed and flowed for decades, will likely continue to be a major element of Qatar’s foreign policy of balancing between major regional and global actors.
Recent Diplomatic Communication
Despite Qatar’s interest in maintaining close ties with Iran and Turkey, there are signs of warming relations between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors as well as Egypt. After the United States released an intelligence report on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar expressed their support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was implicated in the journalist’s murder. After a phone call in late February between Mohammed bin Salman and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir’s office announced that he “reaffirmed his country’s firm support for the government and people of Saudi Arabia and everything that would strengthen the security, stability and sovereignty of the Kingdom, and considers its stability as an integral part of the stability of the state of Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council system.”
In March, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan visited Doha and met with the Qatari emir to discuss increasing bilateral ties. A couple weeks after this meeting, Tamim and Mohammed bin Salman had a phone conversation about climate change and greater environmental cooperation. According to news reports, they discussed the Green Saudi and Green Middle East initiatives.
Qatar-Egypt high-level communication is also on the rise. Soon after the signing of the Al Ula agreement, Qatari Minister of Finance Ali Shareef Al Emadi attended the opening of the St. Regis Hotel in Cairo, a project financed by the Qatari real estate company Diar. The opening had been delayed during the boycott, though other Qatari investments in Egypt remained intact. This prominent hotel opening including the Qatari finance minister was an important signal of the potential for greater economic ties between Qatar and Egypt.
In February, the first official meeting between Qatari and Egyptian delegations, as well as separate bilateral talks between Qatar and the UAE, took place in Kuwait. The meetings focused on confidence-building measures and ways to improve bilateral ties. In March, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo during an Arab League meeting. There were few details released in official statements and news conferences, but the Qatari foreign minister said that “We in the State of Qatar and the brothers in Egypt look at matters positively and strive for a return of warm relations.” Most recently, the Qatari emir called Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to express Ramadan greetings – the first contact between the two leaders since the signing of the Al Ula agreement in January.
Significant Points of Friction
High-level meetings have yet to take place between Qatar and Bahrain. A delegate from Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reportedly visited Doha in February carrying a message about starting official talks. However, there seems to be continued tensions between Doha and Manama, most visibly over Al Jazeera coverage. An Arab Weekly report described a less critical editorial line regarding Al Jazeera coverage on Saudi Arabia since January but also noted that much of the other coverage on Gulf states remained unchanged and that a new media war is currently unfolding between Qatar and Bahrain.
Contention over regional media battles remains a sticking point in cultivating better intra-GCC ties. Bahraini Minister of Information Ali bin Mohammed Al Rumaihi recently criticized a report on Qatar’s Al Jazeera media network. He claimed that “The TV program broadcast by the Qatari Al Jazeera channel contradicts all the principles stipulated in Al-Ula Agreement and announced by the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs himself after the GCC summit.” Media narratives from Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya, Emirati-funded Sky News Arabic, and various other national networks within the Gulf states have long been a point of friction in Gulf relations, and this is something that will likely continue to varying degrees. After all, one of the initial demands of the boycotting countries was for Qatar to close Al Jazeera. The information wars and battles over Al Jazeera’s coverage and influence will likely remain a lightning rod for the foreseeable future despite this period of greater intra-GCC cooperation.
The Al Ula agreement also calls for greater GCC economic integration and better coordination on security and foreign policies of its member states. According to the declaration, the signatories will commit to “the completion of economic integration, the implementation of joint defense and security systems, and a unified foreign policy for the Member States.” The more independent-minded member states like Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait could have a difficult time aligning their foreign policies with Saudi Arabia, since they have historically differed on major issues like the nature of their ties to Iran. There is much room for improvement on economic integration and coordinating foreign policy priorities, but the agreement’s vision seems to reflect Saudi-centered priorities, which will likely cause issues for other member states. For example, the agreement calls for the “full implementation of the vision put forth” by host Saudi Arabia at the December 2015 GCC summit, including “a unified foreign policy for member states.” Just because there is renewed cooperation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia does not mean that, for example, Qatar will fully implement the aspiration of aligning its foreign policy with all GCC member states or adopt Saudi policies to counter and isolate Iran, nor is Qatar likely to limit relations with Turkey. Tensions could still remain between Qatar and the UAE over Doha’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist actors across the region, as well as over proxy competition in conflict arenas like Libya and Somalia as well as regions like the Horn of Africa and North Africa more broadly. The UAE-Turkey rivalry will likely continue to be a point of friction between the UAE and Qatar, as an important regional ally of Turkey.
Overall, Qatar’s regional relations and foreign policy may not significantly change as a result of the Al Ula agreement. Doha is likely to continue to seek to maintain an independent foreign policy and engage in regional balancing to secure its strategic priorities, while it also strives to implement the agreement, as a way to ease frictions with its neighbors. The agreement seems to have eased tensions, but it has left many questions unanswered and many points of contention among the Gulf states unresolved.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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