Saudi Arabia, its allies and Qatar have pledged to negotiate to resolve a dispute that raged for over three years, signaling a change in a crisis that has divided the oil-rich Gulf and pitted US allies against each other.
Kuwait, which has led days of mediation efforts with the United States, said on Friday that Arab rivals had “confirmed their commitment” to reaching a final deal and preserving “Gulf solidarity.”
Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut off transport and diplomatic links with Qatar in mid-2017, accusing their neighbor of supporting Islamist groups and of being too close to Iran.
A person briefed on the talks said it was the first time that the five Arab countries involved in the dispute agreed to negotiate to end the crisis.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, said the Kuwaiti declaration was “an imperative step” towards resolving the dispute.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said “significant progress” has been made in recent days. “We hope that this progress can lead to a final agreement that seems close. . . I am somewhat optimistic that we are on the verge of finalizing an agreement between all the nations involved in the conflict, ”he said in a video conference.
Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, said he was “very hopeful” that the dispute would be resolved.
Qatar has denied the allegations against it and all sides have refused to make concessions, resisting pressure from Washington to resolve the crisis. But in recent weeks, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has stepped up Riyadh’s efforts to restore relations with Doha.
However, analysts said this week’s talks, which involved Jared Kushner, son-in-law and adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, appeared to have achieved less than had been hoped for.
“There are certainly indications that the gaps between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are narrowing,” said Michael Stephens, associate researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank. “There is potential for improved relations, but it may be a bit too early to hope for full reconciliation given the extent of animosity on both sides.
Some in the region believe that attempts by Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, to ease the crisis are part of an effort to improve his position with President-elect Joe Biden, who has publicly criticized the kingdom for human rights violations.
Analysts say the Trump administration was also keen to secure a breakthrough before its term ends in January. Kushner spoke on Wednesday with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, as part of a visit to the region where he insisted on the issue.
Qatar is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East, and the Trump administration fears the dispute could weaken the Arab alliance it has sought to forge against Iran. It is also frustrating that Tehran has benefited financially, as the embargo has forced flights to and from Qatar to use Iranian airspace.
There had been speculation that Riyadh and Doha would agree to “confidence-building” measures. Reaching a deal to allow Qatari flights to fly over rival Gulf states was seen as one of the most likely first steps in improving relations. But there was no mention of such moves in Friday’s statements.
Officials and analysts said the UAE had been the most reluctant to accept the rapprochement, in part because Abu Dhabi was particularly concerned about Qatar’s relations with Turkey. The UAE is increasingly worried about the influence of turkey iin the Arab world and accuses Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of leading a “neocolonial” policy in the region.
Sheikh Mohammed, Qatar’s foreign minister, told a conference on Friday that any resolution of the crisis must be “holistic” and that Doha does not want to distinguish between countries in dialogue to forge a unified Gulf.
He refused to remove Qatar from Turkey, which deployed troops to Qatar when the conflict erupted in 2017. “It is our duty to stand by Turkey’s side when they encounter difficulties,” he said. he declared.
After imposing the embargo three years ago, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi presented to Doha an extraordinary list of 13 demands including Al Jazeera shutdown, the Qatar-funded television network, hampering Doha’s relations with Iran and shutting down a Turkish military base.
Gulf officials warn that a full resolution of the dispute, which has become increasingly toxic as it was inflamed by accusations and counter-accusations, is still some distance away.