Riyadh Summit: Saudi tactic, Qatari counter-tactic

Alwaght – The 39th summit of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council started in Riyadh on Sunday, putting an end to speculations about whether the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani who was invited by the Saudi king will participate. He finally did not join the gathering and send a lower level delegation to the Saudi capital.

Since June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposing a blockade on the Persian Gulf Arab state, the Qatari emir several times has expressed his readiness to talk with the blockading countries to discuss and settle the crisis. However, in a blatant turnabout, Sheikh Tamim refused to participate in the Riyadh summit personally, raising questions about the reasons behind Doha’s decline to welcome the Saudi show of flexibility.

Riyadh’s tactical move and Doha’s counter-tactic  

Certainly, part of Qatar emir’s snub of Riyadh-hosted (P)GCC summit, which was seen as an opportunity for dialogue and settlement of the problems with the blockading states, is related to the Doha assessment of atmosphere covering the relations between the two sides which shows no signs of de-escalation. The chill in their relations even went more deteriorated with Qatar, using its Al Jazeera news network, worked hard to expose to the world the aspects of the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by Saudi government agents.

Apparently, in such conditions, the Qataris think that there is no shift in the stances of the opposite sides which is required to lift the ban and start a dialogue to end the spat. Doha is well aware that the only factor that moved Saudi Arabia to invite the Qatari emir is the pressure resulting from the case of Khashoggi killing. The Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, in association with the US   administration, is struggling to get his son Mohammed out of the Khashoggi quagmire through opening windows of de-escalation in Qatar and Yemen cases.

Aware of this intention, Qatar’s leader rejected Saudi king’s invitation. By turning down the de-escalation opportunity, Al Thani helped the difficult days of Prince Mohammed, as the mastermind of the Saudi aggressive policies in the region, to continue in hope of getting him removed from the crown prince post.

However, it seems thtQatari Emir’s decision to reject Saudi king’s invitation was not taken due to tactical reasons; rather, the type of the Doha foreign policy actions over the past few months has been based on a strategic shift in political and economic levels. The snub of the Riyadh summit is seen as an outcome of Doha’s new strategy.

Blockade period and Doha’s foreign policy revision

Over the recent years, the Qatari leaders locked onto a regional position boost taking advantage of their high economic power and also deep media influence thanks to possession of the influential Al Jazeera network. This falls within a broader policy of moving out of the circle of the dominance of Saudi Arabia. Realization of such a goal will allow Doha to play a more active and highlighted role in the regional cases. Signs of such a role play appeared after the Islamic awakening period, ushered in by the Arab world uprisings starting from 2011 Tunisia revolution that ousted the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This role largely sent into discomfort the Arab rivals of Qatar such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In June 2017, remarks of support to Iran-led Axis of Resistance allegedly made by Sheikh Tamim appeared on the website of the Qatari official news agency. Responding to the remarks, which Doha argued came as a result of a hack of its news agency website, Saudi Arabia along with its allies Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain cut off ties and imposed a full ban on the small emirate. The escalation was followed by 13 demands presented to Doha by the banning bloc to comply with or remain isolated. The bloc’s actions worked as a hard blow to the security, economic, and political justifications for Doha to remain within the strategic partnership under the Cooperation Council. The gaps are so deep that after last week’s Doha announcement of quitting OPEC, speculations about possible withdrawal also from the (P) GCC begin to grow stronger.

The developments surrounding Qatar case herald advent of a new security and political order in the West Asia region, with Doha struggling to secure an influential position in the new order through moving close to Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, the main pillars to the emerging order. For example, the Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani during a visit to Baghdad last month suggested to the Iraqi officials to form a new strategic alliance comprised of Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Syria, and Iraq. Qatar also decided not to seriously participate in the US-demanded Arab NATO.