Amid reports that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are close to reaching a deal to end the nearly four-year-long Gulf dispute, signs of tension remain that could hamper a final agreement. With Kuwait working to mediate and build on US-brokered talks, maritime navigation issues have emerged as another sticking point.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia on Dec. 1 called for guaranteeing the freedom of navigation in the Gulf, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea. In a joint statement issued following a meeting of the Egyptian-Saudi political consultation committee in Riyadh, the two countries warned that any attempt to hinder navigation poses a threat to regional security and stability.
The meeting came days after Qatari patrols intercepted on Nov. 25 two Bahraini coastguard vessels conducting a maritime exercise in the Arabian Sea. The Bahraini Interior Ministry described the Qatari action as a “blatant violation” of international maritime conventions.
“No country has the right to intercept by force a coastguard ship or vessel, especially since the incident occurred in the territorial waters of Bahrain,” the ministry said in a statement. The Bahraini parliament also warned that the Qatari boat interception threatened regional security and stability.
Qatar, for its part, said the Bahraini boats were stopped for violating the country’s territorial waters but were later allowed to go after contacting Bahraini authorities for clarification.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry reiterated on Nov. 30 Egypt’s support to Bahraini and Gulf security, following talks in Cairo with his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif Al-Zayani. The discussions dwelt on the Qatari seizure of Bahraini coastguard vessels, an incident criticized by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry for “contradicting the conventions and treaties of the International Law of the Sea.”
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) severed diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar in 2017, accusing Doha of supporting terrorist groups. Qatar has denied the accusations and says the Saudi-led bloc aims to infringe on its sovereignty.
Ahmed Elbaz, policy director at the Abu Dhabi-based Early Warning Center for Political and Security Studies, said the Egyptian-Saudi meeting was initiated by Riyadh as part of Saudi efforts to heal the rift with Qatar before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden in January.
“Riyadh does not want to reach a unilateral agreement with Qatar without Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, as this may pose a gap of trust between them,” Elbaz told Al-Monitor.
Saudi Arabia said on Dec. 4 that a resolution to mend the rift with Qatar seemed within reach. “We have made significant progress in the last few days thanks to the continuing efforts of Kuwait, but also thanks to strong support from President [Donald] Trump,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told Italy’s annual Mediterranean Dialogues.
The Saudi minister said the imminent agreement will cover all aspects of the dispute and involve all countries concerned.
News of a breakthrough came after Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Sabah on Dec. 4 spoke of fruitful discussions toward resolving the crisis, praising the efforts of Trump’s senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to heal the Gulf rift.
What Kushner, who visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar on Nov. 30, said during the talks or the terms of the imminent deal remain unknown. But Ali Shihabi, a Saudi expert on Middle East affairs living in New York, tweeted that the deal would be based on the principle of not working to undermine the security of the other.
“Qatar would be entitled to the same treatment from Saudi [Arabia],” Shihabi said. “Any other issues are peripheral to this fundamental point of not working toward or allowing/enabling others to take actions that subvert the national security of your neighbors.”
The Saudi-led bloc had set 13 conditions for Qatar as a price for lifting their blockade, including closing the Al Jazeera television, scaling back cooperation with Iran, removing Turkish troops from Qatar’s soil and ending support to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Elbaz, however, ruled out Egypt joining any reconciliation deal with Qatar as long as Doha continued its support to the Muslim Brotherhood group, which Cairo blacklisted in 2013 following the ouster of Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi.
“Egypt’s clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and drying up its finances have been a main pillar of the Egyptian policy and a main point of dispute between Cairo and Doha,” Elbaz said. Doha has been a staunch supporter of the Brotherhood.
Rakha Ahmed Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor that Trump was seeking to mend the Gulf rift as part of his bid for reelection in 2024. “Trump wants to make a political breakthrough before he leaves the White House next month,” he said.
Hassan said the rift between the Saudi-led bloc and Qatar has paralyzed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). “As a sign of this, all regional groupings such as the European Union, ASEAN, the US or Russia that have partnerships with the GCC have not held meetings with the Gulf bloc since 2017 because they can’t meet with it in the absence of Qatar.”
Trump made a phone call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Dec. 4 during which they discussed a number of regional issues of mutual interest. The Egyptian presidency said in a statement that Trump underlined the importance of a fruitful partnership and constructive cooperation between the United States and Egypt and the central role they play in promoting security and stability in the Middle East.
Hassan opines that differences between Egypt and Qatar can be resolved within an ordinary relationship between the two countries. “The issue of the Qatari support to the Muslim Brotherhood can be resolved within the framework of normal relations between Cairo and Doha.”
“Egypt is a heavyweight country and can use its influence to change the Qatari position regarding the Muslim Brotherhood,” Hassan said. “The boycott of Qatar leads to intransigence, which serves the interests of regional and international players."