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Saudis, Egypt embark on long road to ending rift with Qatar

The Al-Ula summit raised hopes of a full restoration of GCC ties [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 March, 2021

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Saudi Arabia and Egypt are more receptive towards Qatar, but the UAE and Bahrain are less willing to forget past differences and normalize relations.
Though Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s recent rapprochement with Qatar raised hopes that they will further restore damaged ties, Bahrain and the UAE have been slow to follow suit, Reuters reported on Friday.

Several foreign diplomats and regional sources said bilateral talks between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Egypt to iron out outstanding differences were "progressing".

But they said dialogue with the UAE has made little progress and it has not even begun with Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in June 2017, imposing an ongoing sea, land and air blockade on the country.

The self-styled "Anti-Terror Quartet" accused Doha of "supporting terrorism", and the quartet gave Doha a thirteen-point ultimatum to carry out within ten days, including shuttering media outlets, ending ties with Iran, downscaling military cooperation with Turkey and severing ties with "terrorist groups". 

Qatar rejected the accusations and demands, saying there was "no legitimate justification" for severing relations.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar agreed to set their differences aside at the Al-Ula summit on January 5, as Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE pledged to follow suit and normalize relations with Doha.

The United States under Donald Trump sought to resolve the Gulf crisis as a final foreign policy victory under his administration.

Yet the blockading countries are now publicly warming towards Qatar to please the incumbent Joe Biden administration.

"It's our goal that the Gulf works as a team," a US State Department official told Reuters. "We are happy with the progress they have made...It is a very nascent rapprochement."

For Egypt's part, an official referred to comments by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry this week citing positive messages from Qatar, but it was too early to make a final judgement.

However, three Egyptian security sources and an Arab diplomat said Cairo wants Qatar to extradite wanted Brotherhood members exiled in Doha, and cooperate on security.

When asked about this, a Qatari official told Reuters: "At no point have there been discussions or requests pertaining to the extradition of any individuals in Qatar."

He added that requests which violate human rights would be rejected.

The Arab diplomat and one of the regional sources said Qatar had asked Egypt to release a detained Al Jazeera journalist, which Cairo recently did, and lift a travel entry ban on others.

Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment while the UAE declined to comment. The Qatari official said regular bilateral engagement is underway as are discussions about the status of diplomatic relations.

The UAE, which has a deep-lying geopolitical rivalry with Qatar, has said rebuilding trust will take time, although trade has started to resume.

Relations remain mired in animosity and geopolitical differences including over the presence of Turkey in the region and Qatar's past siding with Ankara, diplomats and the informed sources said.

"Those ideological and political divisions won’t disappear overnight," Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Reuters.

"Still, there are signs that both sides are wearying of the proliferating battles and more willing to cut losses, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic."

With Bahrain there are few signs of progress. Manama recently slammed Doha over Al Jazeera’s news coverage and a dispute over fishing rights. In a statement, Bahrain demanded Doha show “more constructive policies” before any talks.

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