With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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The signing of the January 5 agreement at Al Ula lifting the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt of Qatar is an important step for restoring unity in the Gulf region and for the Gulf Cooperation Council as an institution. However, as many experts have argued, lifting the boycott and restoring diplomatic relations does not address the core problems that divide Gulf states – especially divergent foreign policy interests pursued by the Turkey-Qatar alliance on the one hand, and the Saudi-UAE axis on the other. Kuwaiti meditation, U.S. engagement, and Saudi Arabia’s readiness to move forward played a pivotal role in finally resolving the dispute after several failed attempts over the past three and a half years.
Given that this initiative was primarily pushed by Saudi Arabia, there are many questions as to whether apparently less enthusiastic partners, such as the UAE, will modify their foreign policy accordingly. Moreover, will this easing of tensions have an impact beyond the Gulf region? Gulf rivalries, notably between the UAE and Qatar, intensified conflict and tensions elsewhere, such as across North Africa and the Mediterranean region. Could the resolution of the Gulf rift alleviate some of these tensions and lead to foreign policy adjustments by Gulf states where they have been intervening in this region, namely Libya?
Core Divisions Remain, But There’s Some Room for Optimism
Much of the strategic competition by regional and global powers over Libya and the eastern Mediterranean relates to control over strategic ports, waterways, and resources; there is a scramble to build seaports and military facilities to secure influence over other strategic waterways and ports in Africa, such as in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. On top of that, there are also ideological differences between the UAE-Saudi Arabia and Turkey-Qatar alliances over the role of Islamist parties and the legacies of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
AGSIW’s Hussein Ibish argued, “Left on its own, the UAE probably would have continued the boycott until Qatar agreed to truly reshape its foreign policy with regard to Islamism.” The Emirati policy in North Africa and the Mediterranean prioritizes countering the spread of perceived Islamist or Islamist-affiliated groups through both financial incentives and military actions. This is part of a broader policy of countering revolution and bolstering a regional status quo of authoritarian stability across the Middle East and North Africa in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The Emiratis have also focused on countering moves by Turkey, Qatar’s most important regional partner, to support Islamist movements.
Turkey’s foreign policy has become increasingly militarized and rooted in displays of hard power where it seeks to expand its spheres of influence, such as in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya. Qatari foreign policy still functions primarily through mechanisms such as public diplomacy, media broadcasting, foreign aid and investment, and more traditional defense ties, such as joint military exercises and trainings. Turkey and Qatar’s alliance has expanded since the boycott began in 2017, as has the Turkish military base outside of Doha, and the Al Ula agreement is unlikely to reverse this.
Gulf tensions over Iran, Qatar’s support for Islamist groups, and other foreign policy issues were deeply entrenched well before the 2017 boycott and had previously manifested most acutely in a 2014 diplomatic dispute. The Al Ula agreement represents a first step in a long road ahead for reconciliation.
However tenuous the reconciliation, the agreement is significant in several ways. That the GCC rift was resolved with relative efficiency before the U.S. administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. took office is a sign that regional actors in the Middle East were acknowledging the need for foreign policy adjustments as the administration of former President Donald J. Trump was exiting the stage. The Biden administration has promised a more human rights- and values-oriented foreign policy moving head. Biden also suggested that finding a way to return to the Iranian nuclear deal would be a top priority. During the campaign Biden also promised that he would review U.S. ties with Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia to ensure more accountability over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and to halt support for the war in Yemen.
Libya’s Proxy War
One of the many venues for proxy war in the Middle East is Libya. This war has become increasingly globalized, as rising regional powers seek to expand their spheres of influence across the strategic Mediterranean Sea. Gulf states and their key allies support opposing sides in the Libyan civil war. Turkey and Qatar support the United Nations-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in western Libya, while the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt support the House of Representatives, which relocated to Tobruk in eastern Libya, and General Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army.
The easing of Gulf tensions has raised questions of whether the UAE and Qatar will reduce their involvement in Libya’s war. However, they are likely to remain entangled as the underlying interests originally motivating their involvement have not changed. The roots of Emirati and Qatari involvement go back to the 2011 Arab Spring protests and their support for armed groups to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi. These groups eventually splintered and Gulf support for opposing political and armed factions intensified as Libya held elections and confronted an increasingly militarized environment. Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, on the side of the Government of National Accord, and the UAE, France, and Russia, on the side of Hifter, are providing financial support and in many cases sending and funding foreign mercenaries and supplying weapons. Turkish and Qatari support for the Government of National Accord is perceived by actors like Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a strategy to expand the regional influence of Islamists across the Middle East and North Africa.
The Government of National Accord includes members of Islamist parties and maintains important ties with powerful Islamist parties in the region such as the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, Ennahda in Tunisia (though it rejects the Islamist label, preferring Muslim Democrats), and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It also receives financial and military aid from Turkey, Qatar, and Italy. Saudi Arabia and the UAE view Turkish and Qatari support for these groups as a threat to regional stability and the survival of Gulf regimes. Saudi Arabia designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group in 2014 and banned the organization. The UAE and Egypt followed suit soon after.
The UAE especially views Turkey’s rising regional influence with increasing suspicion, another factor motivating its substantial financial and military involvement in Hifter’s Libyan National Army and its political support for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. The extent of Emirati investment in the Libyan conflict also relates to its expanding portfolio of shared interests with European actors like France and Greece as well as regional partners like Egypt, which also coalesce primarily around countering Turkey. This includes countering Turkey’s expanding security presence and access to offshore gas reserves in the Mediterranean, role in the Cyprus conflict with Greece, and financial and military support for Islamists in North Africa.
Entrenched Fault Lines
The end of the boycott of Qatar is a welcome relief for North African states that remained officially neutral in the Gulf dispute, such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. These countries are likely hoping that this renewed unity will lead to a reboot of Gulf-Maghreb economic and diplomatic ties, which suffered from ebbs and flows as these smaller regional powers were occasionally caught in the crossfire of Gulf tensions after 2011 and especially after 2017. They will be primarily concerned with foreign aid and investment as they struggle with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the lifting of the boycott will likely not fundamentally reshape the geopolitical fault lines in the Mediterranean or the Libyan conflict. The ideological and strategic divisions over the Arab Spring uprisings, democratization and revolution, Islamist parties, and the regional status quo are deep rooted and widespread. Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa over the years and been reinforced by higher volumes of foreign aid and investment from the rival sides. Such fault lines have further hardened in various states across the region due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
The sudden push to resolve the Gulf dispute may largely have stemmed from a concerned Saudi Arabia seeking to buy some goodwill with a new, potentially less friendly U.S. administration. This suggests that this newfound reconciliation could just temporarily mask deeper ideological and strategic differences. Because the agreement at Al Ula did not resolve the root causes of conflict among Gulf states, it will likely not significantly impact Gulf competition in North Africa.
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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