Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz (L) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (R) attending the opening session of the 30th Arab League summit in the Tunisian capital Tunis, March 31, 2019. Photos: Bandar Al-Jaloud and Fethi Belaid/AFP

After a three-year blockade that has ruptured the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and roiled regional politics, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt’s foreign minister statements this week have signaled an easing of tensions with Qatar may be on the cards.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said on Sunday that a settlement of the at-times bitter dispute with Qatar was “within reach.” The same day, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said there were “movements that we hope will put an end to this crisis.”

Then – after a noticeable pause – on Tuesday, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement hoped a “comprehensive solution” was on the way, while UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted his praise for Saudi Arabia’s “good endeavors” to mend the schism.

These statements followed a period of intense lobbying for a deal by both fellow GCC nation Kuwait and the United States, whose outgoing special Middle East envoy, Jared Kushner, visited both Doha and Riyadh in recent days.

Yet, for all the cautious optimism, the dispute between Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain – the “Arab Quartet” – runs far deeper than a few days of diplomatic activity are likely to resolve.

Indeed, the schism goes back well before 2017, when the blockade began. Despite these recent statements, “The issues that separated the sides back then have not really been resolved in any way since,” Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, told Asia Times. “They are far too deep to fix quite so easily.”

An aerial of Qatar. Photo: iStock

In 2017, after severing all diplomatic, trade and transport links with Qatar, the Quartet nations issued a list of 13 demands on Doha.

These ranged from the closure of Qatar-based TV channel Al Jazeerato scaling down ties with Iran. Qatar was also accused of funding jihadi terrorist groups and interfering in the domestic affairs of its neighbors.

The demands also included closure of a Turkish military base – then under construction in Qatar – while compensation was to be paid for “loss of life and other financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies.”

“It was nearly impossible for any state to agree to these demands,” Noha Aboueldahab, Fellow at the Brookings Centre Doha, told Asia Times.

Indeed, as time went on, it became increasingly clear that Qatar was not going to implement any of them. Instead, the besieged Gulf nation developed links with the very nations the Quartet was trying to ostracize – Turkey and Iran.

This has had an impact across the region, from Libya to the Horn of Africa, via Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, where UAE naval and air units wrapped up joint exercises with Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on Monday.

At the same time, the schism has also deepened existing tensions between Qatar and its powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

“Ten years ago, when the Arab Spring happened,” recalls Aboueldahab, “Qatar generally sided with the anti-government protestors and provided people across the political spectrum with some safety. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, however, felt this was a threat to their authority.”

Qatar Special Forces commandos are seen during “120 mm Mortar Crew Training” by the personnel of Qatar-Turkey Combined Joint Force Command in Doha, Qatar on December 4, 2020. Photo: Turkish National Defense Ministry / Handout / Anadolu Agency

Indeed, Doha’s sympathy for popular movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a transnational Sunni Islamist organization founded in Egypt, placed it on the opposite side from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have long defended the regional status quo.

At the same time, “Saudi Arabia, as the main regional power, has never been happy with Qatar taking an independent foreign policy line,” says ICG’s Hiltermann.

This independent line has often put Qatar in Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s crosshairs. In Libya, for instance, Qatar and Turkey back the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, while the UAE backs the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar.

In Syria, “Qatar and the UAE supported different rebel groups, with this one of the reasons the rebellion failed – they were divided amongst themselves,” says Hiltermann.

In the Horn of Africa, Turkey and Qatar have a strong presence in Somalia, while the UAE is a major influence in breakaway Somaliland.

In neighboring Yemen, Turkey and Qatar support the local MB grouping, the Reform Party, which has become an increasingly strong rival to UAE and Saudi-backed factions within the Arab Alliance fighting the rebel Houthis.

“The dispute has been a complicating factor in many regional disputes,” says Aboueldahab.

Given these wide-ranging differences, a deal at the current time is “possible, but unlikely,” Rory Fyfe, from regional consultancy MENA Advisors, told Asia Times.

Yet, at the same time, there are reasons for the sides to try and reconcile – although they may be stronger for Saudi Arabia than the UAE.

“There are many personal connections between Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” says Aboueldahab, “with the blockade splitting families. There are also strong commercial connections, so now, with a new US administration coming in in January, it may be a good time for Saudi Arabia and Qatar to put an end to this.”

Indeed, if a deal of some kind does happen, it may be driven by “desire for good relations with Biden,” says Fyfe – but another dynamic at work may be “growing Saudi-UAE tensions.”

The two countries have backed different factions in south Yemen and argued over oil production targets in OPEC+. The UAE has a softer approach to Iran, too, while the UAE was first in recognizing Israel amongst the GCC nations, with Saudi Arabia lagging behind.

The Qatar blockade highlights the range of competing interests amongst the Quartet – and the difficulty this presents for any solution.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) with US President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner on February 27, 2019, in Ankara. Photo: AFP/Kayhan Ozer/Turkish Presidential Press Service

“There is still a lot to hash out,” Courtney Freer, from the LSE Middle East Centre, told Asia Times, “and four different blockading countries’ interests to think about.”

The Gulf thus may still be too wide for Kushner and Kuwait to cross despite frantic efforts to end the GCC’s three‑year embargo on Qatar before US President Donald Trump leaves office.

Ironically, too, “Kushner may have provided a US green light ahead of the launch of the embargo back in 2017,” Rory Fyfe, from regional economic and political consultancy, MENA Advisors, told Asia Times.