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One Move To The Saudi Checkmate

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Qatar on Saturday in his goodbye tour of the region. Having stated that the tour is driven by an agenda to confront Iran, Pompeo seems to have made his last attempt to put an end to the crisis in the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council as part of the long-held and failed objective of building an anti-Iranian regional alliance.

Last week, Robert Charles O’Brien, the US national security advisor, said that the Trump administration is pushing to lift the three-year blockade on Qatar imposed by Saudi Arabia-led Arab bloc and that he expected the crisis to end within 70 days.

O’Brien noted that the aim behind the US diplomatic efforts to settle the crisis in the six-member Persian Gulf bloc is to push the Arab monarchies to open diplomatic ties with the Israeli regime. He expressed optimism that an “air bridge” that would allow flights to Qatar from Saudi and Bahraini airspace would be launched in the weeks to come.

Over the past few days, the two sides of the crisis demonstrated their will to solve the dispute. Commenting on the dispute on Saturday on the sidelines of a virtual G20 summit hosted by the kingdom, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said Saudi Arabia is continuing to find a way to end the blockade on Qatar.

“We continue to be willing to engage with our Qatari brothers and we hope that they are as committed to that engagement,” he said. “But we do need to address the legitimate security concerns of the quartet and I think there is a path toward that” with a solution “in the relatively near future”.

The Qatari side also sent signals of openness to a solution. Last week, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said his country was ready for dialogue to settle the diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia, adding that any solution should respect Qatar’s sovereignty. Qatar’s Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said last week there are no winners in the crisis, adding his country is hopeful it will end “at any moment.”

Riyadh reaching a dead end

A look at the current conditions and the trend of developments shows that the Saudi retreat before Qatar is not a move signaling that Riyadh is taking the initiative to add to its regional prestige and position. Rather, it is an early admission of the defeat in a path with an impasse at its end.

Naturally, Saudi Arabia is preparing itself for the new US President Joe Biden who in his campaign speeches vowed to review the relations with the Saudis. Crushing the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s critics and opposition, like the assassination of the prominent author Jamal Khashoggi, ongoing Qatar blockade, and the Saudi war on Yemen are the cases Biden team has promised to address upon assumption of power at the White House.

“One of the first Middle East moves the Biden administration should make is to publicly call upon Saudi Arabia to end the boycott immediately, backed by an intention to take the matter before the United Nations Security Council if necessary,” according to the Atlantic Council’s Christopher Hunter. “Such a move should be part of a broader global restoration of the primacy of the rule of law and democratic principles and an explicit rejection of the permissive global environment Trump created for lawless rulers to act on their totalitarian tendencies without fear of consequences”.

Similarly, Michael Eisner and Sarah Leah Whitson of the recently launched Democracy for the Arab World Now have predicted a harder line from Biden. “A Biden administration will not have the same patience for their antics, and might well employ levers to pressure [Saudi Arabia and the UAE] to end the blockade that President Trump wouldn’t consider,” they wrote.

So, Riyadh finds itself in front of no hood choices. While Qatar took advantage of the blockade to strengthen its political, economic, and military independence and did not submit to any of the Riyadh conditions for rapprochement, the Saudis should decide if they should put the eggs of the crisis end in the basket of the outgoing US president or put them in the basket of negotiating table as a playing card with Biden.

The UAE-Qatar dispute continues

When it comes to the Emirates, the picture is different. In the US eyes, the UAE has no role in the Khashoggi murder. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi is no longer directly involved in the Yemen war and has signed a normalization deal with Tel Aviv. These mean that the Emiratis will be less concerned with the Democrats assuming the power at the White House and having Congress influence.

These considered, the Emiratis have little motivation, compared to Saudi Arabia, to improve ties to Qatar especially that Abu Dhabi deems Doha’s ideological threats the highest among others.

This was observable in the recent comments by officials of both Qatar and the UAE. On Monday, Qatar’s FM once again highlighted and criticized normalization with the Israelis as undermining the efforts towards the formation of a Palestinian government.

On the other side, the Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba told the Israel Channel 12 that he did not see any close solution to the Persian Gulf crisis.

“I do not think this issue will be solved this soon,” he said.

He also talked about the need for Doha to accept the humiliating 13 conditions of the blockaders presented during the 2017 crisis to Qatar as preconditions for reconciliation to show the UAE, just unlike Saudi Arabia, does not plan to bury the hatchet, something leaving the Arab bloc’s wound open even if the Saudis raise the white flag.

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