History whispers to blockading Arab states as GCC rift is resolved

History whispers to blockading Arab states as GCC rift is resolved
5 min read
07 Jan, 2021
Comment: As blockading states agree to end their irrational boycott of of Qatar, Rami Khouri highlights how diplomacy and statecraft also helped preserve the ancient Nabataean Arab Kingdom.
GCC leaders convened in Al-Ula, the site of the 2,300 Nabataean Arab kingdom [Getty]
This week's agreement to end the boycott of Qatar by four Arab countries is important and historic, and reflects a striking combination of old ways and new realities in inter-Arab diplomacy.

It is the first formal validation of the failed policies that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have pursued in the region in the past seven years or so. This is a positive development that all should welcome, given the disasters that resulted from the more dynamic, and often politically and militarily aggressive regional actions they took, since their two crown princes effectively assumed control of policies.

The blockade of Qatar was the most flamboyant and bizarre, largely because it was based on fabricated accusations that in turn emanated from slightly hysterical Emirati and Saudi fears about how the region was evolving in political and geo-strategic directions they felt threatened by. No meaningful international party supported the boycott, and many leading countries, like Kuwait, the US, Germany, and others tried repeatedly to end it.

The agreement silently affirms the failure of the boycott, in the typical Middle Eastern manner of admitting your mistake but not acknowledging it explicitly. The underlying political tensions among the GCC states have not been resolved, but they can be through serious dialogue instead of impetuous temper-tantrums.
The agreement silently affirms the failure of the boycott
This enduring old way of inter-Arab diplomacy perpetuates the danger that future policy follies can recur, only to be swept under the rug later in a never-ending cycle of failed and impulsive decision-making by unaccountable powerful men that ravages the lives of tens of millions of innocent people. Yet we should still applaud this agreement, because it offers a glimmer of hope for reduced Saudi-Emirati joint adventurism in regional overreach and militarism that has backfired, most notably, in Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Somalia.

We do not know, of course, what went through the minds of the Saudi-Emirati leaders who reached the point where they agreed to end their blockade - and that's another deeper weakness in Arab decision-making that this episode highlights.

The Qatari response to the boycott, on the other hand, has been an unusual and impressive show of resolve and steadfastness in the face of lies backed by aggression. It helps that Qatar is a small and wealthy country that could quickly enjoy support from powerful friends across the world.

Yet standing up to the potentially grave dangers it faced required a measure of self-assuredness that is not common among Arab leaderships. Qatar's energetic economic adjustments to foster greater self-reliance also hold out promise for reducing its vulnerabilities - offering lessons that many others can benefit from.

Many questions about the agreement remain, related to what - if anything - Qatar offered to make the deal work, the role of the US, Donald Trump's eviction from the White House, and the shadows of Iran and Joe Biden hovering over the region.

Read more: Qatar Airways says to fly over Saudi for first time since Gulf row

Did some Gulf states' expansion of ties with Israel play a role, perhaps making them feel more secure in case the US starts pressuring them or Iran keeps meddling in the region? Time will tell.

But time is also important here in another dimension - the past. The location of the GCC summit in Al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia should remind any Arab leaders who pay attention to history that we have much to learn from what happened in that area some 2,300 years ago. That was when the Nabataean Arab kingdom flourished for around four centuries, in the land of northern Saudi Arabia and southern Jordan today. The Nabataean capital at Petra in Jordan remains one of the wonders of the ancient world, and its rock-carved monuments are also well preserved in the region of Madain Salah near Al-Ula.

The Nabateans still whisper to us today secrets about how small and vulnerable countries can survive and thrive, which should interest both small countries and bigger, more aggressive, ones. These secrets are about preserving delicate natural resources (especially water), balancing economy among trade, agriculture, and industrial/mineral production, leaders serving their people with dignity and humility, and - most importantly - maintaining peaceful and negotiated relationships with potentially threatening bigger foreign powers.

The Nabataeans survived and thrived for centuries in the face of stronger empires that eyed their resources. They did so by evading war, occupation, or destruction and instead negotiating agreements to allow the flow of international trade that was a main source of their wealth and that also benefitted the bigger empires. 
The Nabateans still whisper to us today secrets about how small and vulnerable countries can survive and thrive
Boycotts? No thanks, that's the fool's tool. War and sanctions? No siree, that rarely achieves desired results, and usually worsens conditions for all. Negotiate a sharing of resources and wealth, and security for all? Yessiree, habibi, I'll take that!

The next time the Saudi and Emirati crown princes - or any other Arab leaders - travel around Saudi Arabia they might peek into the past and remember what its ancient civilizations bequeathed to us in the timeless arenas of diplomacy and statecraft.

In the meantime, let us welcome this week's shift to sensible policymaking in the GCC and build on it for more permanent gains for all in the region, including Iranians, Turks, and Israelis whose presence and interests must be dealt with intelligently.

Rami G. Khouri is Director of Global Engagement and senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.