Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) welcomes Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in the city of al-Ula in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Saudi Royal Palace/AFP

With the first Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Dubai touching down at DBX on Thursday, a final pillar of the three-and-a-half year blockade imposed on Qatar by the ‘Arab Quartet’ collapsed.

Yet many questions remain over just what happened in the Saudi city of Al Ula on January 5, where Doha signed a deal to end its standoff with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain since May 2017.

“What are the details of the deal?” Professor Abdullah Al Shayji from Kuwait University asked a webinar on the Al Ula accord held by Brookings Doha Centre in mid-January. “What happened and why is it still confidential?”

The uncertainty continues to cloud assessments of the prospects for real reconciliation while raising questions over the potential regional consequences of a deal that marks a major diplomatic victory for Doha.

Indeed, “Qatar will benefit from a lifting of the blockade without having to transform its foreign policy, or meet any of the 13 demands imposed by the Quartet,” Elham Fakhro, senior Gulf state analyst for the International Crisis Group, said.

Those demands had included Qatar closing Doha-based TV channel Al Jazeera, shuttering a Turkish military base on its soil and cutting ties with Gulf neighbour Iran. So far, though, Doha does not appear to have done any of the above.

Indeed, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said on January 7 in an interview with the Financial Times that regarding Iran and Turkey, “there is no effect on our relationship with any other country.”

As Al Shayji put it at the webinar, “Instead of lowering the presence and influence of the Iranians and Turks, the opposite has happened. When the crisis started, there wasn’t a single Turkish soldier in Qatar. Now there are 5,000.”

The deal thus raises serious questions over the future balance of power within the Gulf, with major differences between regional states remaining unresolved.

Bilateral disputes

The lack of real resolution showed through last week in an angry tweet from Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani.

It came after he had invited an official Qatari delegation to visit Manama and discuss bilateral disputes post-Al Ula. His invitation appeared to have gone unanswered.

“After the summit in Al-Ula,” his ministry tweeted on January 23, “Qatar didn’t show any initiative to solve pending problems with Bahrain.”

At the time of writing, this visit had still not taken place.

The need for discussion is clearly pressing, however, amid a series of maritime and airspace disputes between these two Gulf neighbors, both before and after Al Ula.

These date back to a long-running disagreement between Doha and Manama over possession of the Hawar Islands, some offshore shoals and the Zubarah district of the Qatar peninsula.

The disagreement was apparently resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) back in 2001, with the islands and the shoals going to Bahrain while the Zubarah district went to Qatar.

Omani Deputy Prime Minister Fahd Bin Mahmud signs a document at the start of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit. Photo: Saudi Royal Palace/AFP

Yet, on December 29, Qatar complained to the UN Security Council that Bahraini naval vessels had entered its waters the previous month while Bahraini fighter planes had violated its airspace on December 9.

Recent weeks also saw Qatari coastguards detain Bahraini fishing boats on at least three occasions, including one containing famous Bahraini bodybuilder Sami Al Haddad on January 8, a few days after Al Ula.

Following an appeal from Manama, the crews – and Al Haddad – have since been released,  while Bahrain continues to deny any wrongdoing.

Wider issues

Manama is in a particularly sensitive position with Qatar on another major issue: the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain.

Manama alleges that some of those behind the revolt were aided by Qatar. This touches another, wider unresolved challenge to the Al Ula deal.

“When the Arab Spring happened, Qatar sided with anti-government protestors,” says Noha Aboueldahab, fellow with the Brookings Institute in Doha.

Doha continues to provide a home for other dissident forces in the Arab World, such as the Muslim Brotherhood – anathema to Egypt’s current ruler, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

At the same time, Qatar has maintained good relations with neighbor Iran, with whom it shares a giant undersea gas field.

These warm ties strongly antagonize the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who accuse Iran of backing Houthi forces in Yemen, currently fighting Saudi and Emirati troops. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also accuse Iran of being a destabilizing regional influence.

How these major disputes might be addressed going forward remains unknown, particularly as Qatar has now emerged from the blockade apparently unscathed.

“The last three-and-a-half years gave Qatar the opportunity to see how their different policy approach would work,” says Aboueldahab, “and they’ve found that ultimately it works to their advantage.”

New power balance

Indeed, the blockade crisis may now leave the Gulf region with “a more even and multipolar balance of power,” says Fakhro. “A thaw in this dispute means that no single state will be assuming regional leadership.”

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

While Saudi Arabia was traditionally the leading nation amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – which also include Oman and Kuwait in addition to the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar – this role may now be less prominent.

At the same time, the crisis may have weakened the GCC in relation to other regional powers.

Post-Arab Spring, the GCC “had become the de facto leader of the Arab political system,” Al Shayji remarked at the webinar. “Unfortunately, with the blockade, we shot ourselves in the foot. The GCC as an alliance has really suffered a major blow.”

With the Covid-19 pandemic impacting the Gulf in major and multiple ways, too ­– from the human to the economic – getting that alliance functional again may be more crucial now than ever.