By Closing an Unhappy Chapter with Qatar, Saudi Arabia Hopes to Open a Better One with the US

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP Photo: Bandar Al-Jaloud / Saudi Royal Palace
Those not following the rumors coming out of the Gulf over the past few weeks might have been surprised at the sight that greeted them from Al Ula in western Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. Was that really Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim descending the steps of a plane to be embraced by Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman? Was the worst crisis in the GCC’s history finally over? Just three years ago, such a scene would have been all but unimaginable.

But three years – and especially three years of the Trump administration in the US – is a long time. Many assumptions have been overturned. And as November turned to December and it became clear that a new year would bring a new American president, rumors grew that the long dispute between Qatar and its neighbors was coming to an end.

A rift marked by deep divisions and bitterness was finally ended because of an even greater threat. If that threat wasn’t clear before the GCC summit at Al Ula – there were repeated references to “solidarity” among the Gulf states – then Saudi crown prince Mohammed made it explicit in his opening address: “The nuclear and ballistic missiles program in Iran… aims to shake up the stability of the region.”

The end of the Qatar dispute demonstrates that the Gulf states have come to the conclusion that the end of the Trump era might also mark the start of a new way of America dealing with Iran. With a new president in the White House and the uncertainty about what Joe Biden might do, the Gulf states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, want to put a familial dispute to one side, so they can focus on what they consider is an existential threat.

On the other side of the Arabian Gulf, even as the chairs were being unpacked in Saudi’s western heritage site, Iran was busy demonstrating just why its neighbors consider it a threat. On Monday, January 4, the Revolutionary Guards seized a South Korean tanker in the strait of Hormuz and took all its crew into custody. On the same day, Iran confirmed it had resumed enriching uranium toward 20 percent purity.

Some of that is, of course, posturing. (On Twitter, Iran’s foreign minister was careful to say the enrichment was “fully reversible.”) Iran is plainly positioning itself for new negotiations with a new White House. With around two weeks to go before a new US president is sworn in, Iran has started ramping up the pressure in the region, no doubt in order to be able to then de-escalate and show goodwill once Biden takes office.

The Gulf states, too, are preparing. For them, the Biden presidency could be a reset, but some in the region fear it may also be a reversal.

It is no secret that Barack Obama was less popular among the Gulf states than Donald Trump. They felt Obama was too quick to jettison Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and disliked his failure to enforce red lines over Syria. But the Gulf was particularly suspicious of him because of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated, as they saw it, behind their backs and presented as a fait accompli.

Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018. But as Biden, Obama’s vice-president for eight years, comes into office, the region is studying the tea leaves for signs of what a Biden presidency might do on Iran. They note that his choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has pledged to return to the nuclear deal. They hear the mood music from European capitals that a return to the deal is necessary. They listened to China’s foreign minister say last month that the US should revive the deal “without preconditions.”

Yet the biggest concern is that a Biden White House, like the Obama White House, might not fully grasp their concerns, and instead sideline them in favor of a quick deal. For the Gulf, the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons was, and remains, only part of a much larger issue – the gradual expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East. Today, Iranian allies operate north and south of the Gulf states and Iran’s military footprint is growing. Any deal that slowed Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, but rewarded it with access to money and kept its links with military proxies intact, would be a deal only half-done – worse, indeed, than none at all.

The Gulf is preparing for this change by seeking a united front – wiping away, so to speak, the lines in the sand that represented their closed borders.

The harmonizing of relations also offers the incoming US president a gift, and not an insubstantial one: removal of the need to choose among close allies. The three primary players, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are all close and deep allies of the US – Qatar, after all, hosts America’s Central Command. It is an uncomfortable position for any US president to take sides in such a situation. And though Trump was happy to nail his colors to the mast, for diplomats and more diplomatically minded politicians, it was complex. No doubt Biden would prefer to begin without this hanging over such a pivotal region. Now that tension has gone.

Many in Al Ula will have been genuinely pleased their dispute had come to an end. Closing the Qatar chapter offers the opportunity of opening a new one with the United States. But it also reminds the leaders of the GCC that the Iranian book remains far from finished.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.