Two and a half years after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain launched a boycott against rival Qatar, the quartet are headed to Doha for a soccer tournament on November 24 – a game-changer in the Gulf dispute.
In the absence of significant Qatari capitulations or face-saving gestures, it appears concerns over Iran’s ability to threaten oil production and shipping have compelled Riyadh and its allies to bring Doha back into the fold.
The most important thing to watch is whether Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, the peninsula state’s only land border to the rest of the Gulf, will open for the match.
“If the border opens up for the soccer game it will open up for regular visitors,” said Sigurd Neubauer, an analyst at the DC-based Gulf International Forum.
“This will be the game-changer,” he told Asia Times, as it could lead to a permanent lifting of the land and air blockade on Qatar and its lucrative national carrier, Qatar Airways.
Egyptian gas connection
While Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain may be subtle in their rapprochement with Qatar, Egypt has been willing to go to the next level to secure key energy supplies for its 90 million population.
In the past week, Qatar’s state gas company announced that a US$4.4 billion investment in Egypt – one of the countries supposedly boycotting it – had begun to bear fruit.
“Qatar Petroleum is pleased to announce the successful start-up of the Egyptian Refining Company (ERC) Refinery project located in Mostorod, north of the Egyptian capital Cairo,” a company statement said.
“All of the ERC Refinery units are now successfully operating, and are expected to ramp up to full production before the end of the first quarter of 2020, which will reduce Egypt’s dependence on imported petroleum products,” it added.
Qatar has quietly supplied the neighboring UAE with gas during the blockade, but the massive investment in Egypt – its largest in the Arab world and Africa – means Doha is going a step further to exhibit its strategic relevance.
With Saudi Arabia, a key patron of Egypt, focused on cooling Gulf tensions, deals like this may be increasingly granted a green light, if they even require a blessing at all.
“Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and even if [President] Sisi is aligned with Saudi, Egypt did not expel any Qatari citizens during the blockade and allowed Egyptians to keep working and sending remittances,” said analyst Neubauer.
In turn, Doha showed a willingness to distance itself from its key ally through the blockade: Turkey.
“The Qatari decision to invest in Egypt is a strategic decision and it angered [President] Erdogan. So this is another sign things are moving in the right direction,” Neubauer added.
For Egypt, a key qualm against Qatar was its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and support for the anti-government 2011 uprising. But for Saudi Arabia, the key issue was ties with its arch-foe Iran.
But with the US maximum pressure campaign on Tehran now understood to be limited to sanctions, and with Tehran exhibiting its willingness to hit the Arab monarchies where it hurts – the petroleum sector – Qatar may increasingly be seen as a potential mediator for its vulnerable neighbors, rather than as a spoiler.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, just a few years ago set on taking on every rival from the Houthis of Yemen to Iran, has massively changed his positioning since the summer.
The damage to Saudi Aramco facilities last month drove home the risk of escalation with Tehran, and by extension, the importance of Gulf unity and multilateralism. For the UAE, attacks on oil tankers off its coast earlier this summer had a similar effect.
The lightning attacks on Aramco facilities wiped out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in a span of hours, wreaking not only physical damage but financial – compelling international investors to consider fresh security risks amidst an IPO valuation.
With no US military response to the Aramco attacks, the Saudis were shown how they would bear the brunt of further aggravation of their powerful neighbor.
“The combination of those attacks in September and doubts about US reliability … has persuaded the UAE and the Saudis that they needed to start dialing down tensions,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“And that relates to Qatar and Iran.”
In the case of Qatar, the Gulf states will be looking to come to an understanding that allows all parties to save face.
But Doha, which over the course of the blockade has embraced dairy farms and shifted to greater trade with Iran, is unlikely to ever go back to reliance on food imports through its land border with Saudi Arabia.
“Whatever compromise you find, it is not going to be a return to the status quo. It’s going to take a while to heal the wounds,” said Dorsey.
The Qataris, he said, will not be suddenly putting their eggs into one basket.