GCC summit is short on reconciliation details despite positive tone

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit did not go beyond stressing “solidarity and stability” in the Gulf, and a “complete resumption of diplomatic relations” between the boycotting Arab quartet and Qatar.

The warm welcome and optimistic words about the future, spoken by the leaders, overshadowed the issue of reconciliation for which the summit was held as well as the substance of this reconciliation, its conditions and implementation mechanisms.

The closing statement of the summit, delivered by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, announced a set of general provisions for “non-interference in internal affairs”, commitment to “strengthening cooperation in combating terrorist entities, currents and organisations”, and “jointly confronting any threats to Gulf security”. But it did not reflect any direct practical steps by any of the concerned parties towards this end.

The Saudi foreign minister announced the restoration of full formal relations between the boycotting countries and Qatar.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz made sure the summit was chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to confirm that reconciliation is also Prince Mohammed’s choice, not just his.

The Saudi crown prince opened the summit with remarks in which he said that the efforts of Kuwait and the United States led “to the cooperation of all, in order to reach the Al-Ula statement agreement”.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman made mention of the security challenge posed by Tehran, which has close ties to Qatar, and the need to unite efforts to confront “the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear programme and its ballistic missile programme”. But he refrained from talking about Turkey or referring to it even if the disputed relations between Ankara and Doha were on the list of demands by the Arab quartet.

Saudi media reported, in detail, about the crown prince’s welcome of the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, their meetings and their touring of Al-Ula, to confirm that the relationship between the two countries has entered a new phase.

The summit statement omitted any reference to the demands of the boycotting countries and how Qatar would commit to implementing them, while Egypt was referred to very briefly.

Gulf analysts said that the summit aimed to achieve a moral rather than a political reconciliation that would take place after discussion of the roots of the crisis and the way out of it and identifying the type of concessions that are to be expected and the party that is supposed to undertake the first step in this process.

These analysts did not rule out that the intent of the summit was in fact to achieve “an expedient and rapid reconciliation” in response to the challenges posed by the administration of the new U.S. President Joe Biden, amid talk that the important concern in the Gulf is to allay fears of forthcoming pressures, provided that this reconciliation is later fleshed out in detail after the different parties have enough time to balance their positions based on their calculations and taking into consideration their own relations with other countries.

As he expressed his country’s satisfaction with the results of the Al-Ula summit, Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, stressed that “there is need to rebuild confidence in order to establish transparent and strong relations between the Gulf states”.

Observers say that the moral authority of Saudi Arabia and that of King Salman has contributed to the summit gaining a collective momentum. The approach was seen as making it possible to remove obstacles from the Gulf summit’s path but not guaranteeing a permanent and comprehensive solution to the contentious issues at hand.

“It seems that confidence-building measures have begun to be put in place between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Others will join later,” said Bader al-Saif, assistant professor at Kuwait University.

He added, “Any step towards reconciliation is better than no step at all”, considering that “the Gulf Cooperation Council requires a new start and can offer much more than it has”.

He continued, “as with every reconciliation, this may be strewn with obstacles, and it could eventually face dead ends and tensions”.

He expected the upcoming talks between the countries concerned to be “difficult” considering the “conflicting interests”.

The Gulf countries will wait till after the summit to find out what was agreed upon regarding reconciliation, and whether the matter stopped at personal commitments from leaders or whether agreements were reached but were kept secret to avoid embarrassing anyone on concessions and mutual guarantees, as it happened with the Riyadh Agreement in 2013 and 2014, when the documents, which were signed between the various parties, appeared only during the boycott crisis.

Observers say the Qataris would accept to some extent to rein in Al Jazeera, and they might make Doha a less hospitable place for the Muslim Brotherhood.

But they are unlikely to accept anything beyond that, which could raise concerns in the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

It could also revive the type of Gulf tensions that have prevailed for more than three years.

The challenge for the Saudis will be to extract enough concessions from both sides in order to show that everyone is ready to engage a meaningful dialogue.

Observers of Gulf affairs believe that the silence that accompanied the summit on the issue of Qatari concessions cannot be evidence that the boycotting countries, including Saudi Arabia, have accepted a vague settlement allowing Qatar to come out of the summit without offering any guarantees.

This would not be acceptable to countries such as Egypt, which is uncomfortable dealing with this kind of ambiguity.

Cairo did not present a clear position on the issues of substance at the Gulf summit, limiting itself to loose phrases and seemingly positive statements whose final meaning lends itself to different political interpretations.  Its stance implies keenness on making sure that the reconciliation satisfies the demands of the four countries, and does not end up to be just a bilateral reconciliation.

Egyptian sources told the Arab Weekly, that Cairo deals with the issue of reconciliation with Qatar in a “very complex diplomatic way, which conceals more than what is reveals”. “For regional and international considerations, Cairo has taken a coyly supportive stance, so as not to be accused of standing against reconciliation.”

The participation of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in the summit reflected Cairo’s approach, after previous media leaks had speculated that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s might attend the Gulf summit.

This was corroborated by a number of statements in which Cairo seemed to be holding the political stick in the middle, “neither expressing clear acceptance nor categorical rejection”.

The Arab Weekly has learned that until the morning of the summit, the attendance of the Egyptian foreign minister, or any other high-ranking official, was not confirmed.

The position changed at the last minute, to avoid giving the impression that Egypt is against a reconciliation formula that it knows, much more than others, will not change much in Qatar’s behaviour.

Qatar gave the impression through the visit of Finance Minister Ali Shareef Al Emadi to Egypt crossing Saudi airspace before the end of the Gulf summit in order to attend the opening of a hotel owned by the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, that there are hidden understandings between Doha and Cairo, which put Egypt in a slightly awkward situation.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Arab Weekly and reproduced by permission.)