Saudi officials announced at the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC) summit on 5th January that the three-year air, land and sea blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt had ended.
All four countries subsequently reopened all airspace and land and sea border crossings to Qatar before agreeing to restore diplomatic ties and resume international flights to and from the country.
Why was the Qatar blockade imposed?
The quartet initially imposed the blockade on 5th June 2017, after Qatar’s state news agency published a story in which Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted praising militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, in addition to Israel and Iran. The blockade came into force immediately, with Qatar’s only land border - the Abu Samra crossing with Saudi Arabia - closed on the same day. The three Gulf countries of the quartet, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, also ordered all Qatari citizens to leave their territory within two weeks. Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Jordan, Maldives, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal later joined the quartet in downgrading or cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar. US security agencies subsequently confirmed that the news agency had been hacked and that an external user had planted the story.
Following the blockade, the quartet issued a 13-point ultimatum, which Qatar would have to meet within ten days, for the blockade to be withdrawn. These included maximalist demands such as the downgrading of diplomatic ties and international cooperation with Iran and Turkey, an immediate halt to support for terrorist and sectarian organisations and the alignment of Qatari military, political and economic policies with the other Gulf and Arab states.
The blockade is the third time that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have attempted to isolate and destabilise Qatar since the mid 1990s. Motivations behind the hostility have varied over the past three decades from undermining an economic competitor to tensions over long-lasting border disputes. However, it was the 2011 Arab risings that triggered the chain of events that eventually led to the blockade. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE mobilised to support the authoritarian status quo in Arab states such as Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar threw its weight behind Islamist political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood hoping that they would dominate the post-uprising political scene. A coordinated withdrawal of UAE, Saudi, Bahraini and Egyptian ambassadors from Qatar in 2014 failed to bring Qatar to withdraw its support for Islamist movements and left the quartet considering more comprehensive actions. However, until the 2016 US election of Donald Trump, stronger action against Qatar was hampered by a White House reluctant to support movement against a country containing the largest US military base in the region.
Why has the Qatar blockade been lifted?
There are two principal factors behind the withdrawal of the blockade - its failure to achieve its stated goals and the forthcoming arrival of the new US administration.
Following three years of blockade, Qatar has not complied with any of the 13 demands it was confronted with nor does it plan to change its foreign policy following the blockade withdrawal. This is because the blockade failed to isolate Qatar internationally or destabilise the Qatari ruling family domestically. The additional countries that had supported the blockade, such as Jordan and Senegal, all restored ties that had been cut or downgraded by 2018. Trump, who had initially tweeted in support of the blockade, had re-assessed his position by September 2017, and henceforth committed his administration to resolving the blockade. Domestic support for the ruling Qatari elite did not waver throughout the past three years, largely due to Qatar’s impressive rapid overcoming of the operational challenges posed by the blockade. Disrupted trade and travel routes were quickly restructured and within months the government overcame the drop in imports. Ironically, the blockade even strengthened the quartet’s regional rival Iran, due to the hundreds of millions of dollars Qatar was forced to pay to use Iranian airspace.
Incoming US president Joe Biden has made it clear that he wishes to reassess Trump’s Middle-East foreign policy. In particular, Biden has promised to end US support for the Saudi Arabia’s six-year war in Yemen. The Saudi leadership hopes that the withdrawal of the blockade on a country considered to be a vital US ally will put the Kingdom in good light before negotiations over future US support to Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen. Biden will also want to reduce tensions in the Gulf ahead of renegotiations with Iran over the US re-joining the Iran Nuclear Deal. To achieve this, the US will need Qatar to mediate between Iran and the anti-Iranian Gulf bloc of Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia. New statesmen in Kuwait and Oman, countries that had previously acted as a backchannel between Iran and the Gulf, are seen as too inexperienced.