The Al Ula Accord: Qatar’s gains, the UAE’s losses, and Iran’s quiet win

Introduction 

Days after the signing of the solidarity and stability agreement – the Al Ula accord – between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s allies, the Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, made it clear that Doha would continue to pursue an independent foreign policy driven by its own national interest. The Qatari Foreign Minister was alluding to demands by Riyadh and other countries that Qatar should re-assess its ties with Iran and Turkey in the aftermath of the agreement.

Days after the imposition of the blockade, Saudi Arabia and other countries had stated that they would remove the blockade provided that Doha accepted a list of 13 demands. One of these demands was that Doha should downgrade ties with Tehran and Ankara. Qatar categorically refused to accept this demand.  

The UAE’s response to the accord  

While all other signatories have hailed the agreement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has said that while the signing of the agreement is a welcome step, there is no clarity with regard to contentious issues – such as Doha’s relations with Ankara and Tehran. Expressing the UAE’s skepticism, its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said

Some issues are easier to fix and some others will take longer. We are off to a very good start…but we have issues with rebuilding trust.

The UAE had opened land, sea, and airports with Qatar on January 8, 2021 (Saudi had opened the borders on January 4, 2021). According to many observers, the accord will give a boost to bilateral economic links between the UAE and Qatar (the UAE’s tourism and construction sectors are likely to benefit significantly from the agreement).

It would be important to point out that, till a few months ago, the UAE had been opposed to the removal of the blockade on Qatar, but was compelled to sign it, given the changing dynamics in the Middle East. 

Iran, Turkey, and the agreement 

The key objective of both the US (White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner had visited the Middle East in December) and Saudi Arabia in removing the embargo on Qatar was reducing the latter’s dependence upon Iran. Qatar has been using Iranian air space ever since the blockade was imposed in June 2017.

On the other hand, Doha realizes that its independent foreign policy, and good relations with Washington and Tehran and Ankara, are an asset. The latest agreement, which will improve ties with Saudi Arabia, could further bolster its strategic importance and foreign policy options. Qatar has consistently batted in favor of reduction of tensions between the US and Iran, and after the signing of the agreement, it has offered to intervene between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Turkey (both Turkey and Iran had also welcomed the Al Ula accord, and expressed optimism that it would pave the way for stability in the Middle East). 

Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, Special Envoy of the Qatari Foreign Minister for Combating Terrorism and Mediation in the Settlement of Disputes, while commenting on the possible role of Qatar in reducing tensions between Ankara and Tehran, stated:

If these two countries see that the State of Qatar has a role in this mediation, then it is possible to do so.

The UAE is not too happy with Qatar’s increasing clout as a result of the agreement (for long the UAE has viewed itself as a key player in the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] and a bridge). While the UAE itself has maintained back channels with Iran, especially in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, it has serious differences with Turkey and has not been comfortable with Qatar’s increasing proximity with Ankara. 

Conclusion  

In conclusion, the agreement is an important step but the geopolitics of the Middle East are extremely complex. Qatar is unlikely to drastically alter its approach vis-à-vis Turkey and Iran; in fact it would like to view itself as a peacemaker rather than just a mere bystander. The fact that Qatar was able to deal with the economic implications of the blockade has only strengthened its position (in 2021, it is likely to grow at 2.7%, the second highest rate within the GCC). 

It remains to be seen how the Saudis and the US view the role of Qatar within the GCC. What would also be important to watch is how the UAE deals with the changing landscape in the Middle East.

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