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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

Tensions have escalated dramatically between Qatar, and its two Gulf neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, over the past week after statements attributed to Sheikh Tamim.
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim. / AFP PHOTO /
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim. / AFP PHOTO /

Abu Dhabi // Qatar’s emir arrived in Kuwait for talks with his counterpart Sheikh Sabah on Wednesday believed to be part of Kuwaiti mediation efforts aimed at bringing an end to the latest crisis to erupt among the GCC’s three most powerful members.

Tensions have escalated dramatically between Qatar, and its two Gulf neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, over the past week after statements attributed to Sheikh Tamim — and then claimed to have been fake — that criticised the positions that emerged from Donald Trump’s trip to Riyadh, on relations with Iran and the fight against extremist groups in particular.

The episode has vividly exposed the still unresolved differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE that were exposed in 2014.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi sent their ambassadors back to Doha after an eight-month absence in November 2014 after Sheikh Tamim agreed to ratify again a GCC agreement that reportedly entailed pledges of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states and ending any support for parties that threaten the stability of any member — a clear reference to political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar also claimed it took a number of steps to curtail its support for Islamist groups across the Arab world that it had invested in to project influence during and after the Arab Spring. GCC partners do not believe that Qatar followed through with its promises.

For Saudi’s King Salman, the strengthening Iranian threat as well as the rise of ISIL was more pressing.

But Doha, while cautious of Tehran, also shares a key interest in the Northern Dome gasfield with Iran, and does not view it as a threat to its internal stability. Qatar has called for engagement rather than confrontation, a position that has angered Riyadh.

The alleged comments by Sheikh Tamim, which appeared on the Qatari state media report described Iran as a “major force to ensure stability in the region” and defended Hamas and Hizbollah.

For Abu Dhabi, concerns over Qatar’s support for Islamists never dissipated. Many observers in the Gulf who have warily watched GCC unity fracture over the past week and have placed great hope in Kuwait’s ability to broker some sort of de-escalation.

“If there is one country among the GCC that is acceptable to all and doesn’t have any problems with anybody, it’s Kuwait,” said one GCC-based observer. “So I think there is some kind of credibility to the Kuwaitis entering into this and trying to bridge the gap.”

In 2014, Sheikh Sabah and Kuwaiti officials worked hard to end the rift and were eventually successful, along with assistance from Oman.

But the other observers said the dynamics this time around are not so amenable, and from the Saudi-UAE perspective, they have heard promises before that they say were not kept. Al Arabiya reported that any agreement would have to include a number of binding clauses for Doha, but they are identical to those reported to be in the 2014 agreement.

Doha may be willing to take even deeper steps to reduce its ties to Islamist groups, but the optics around making even more concessions to its larger neighbours will make a quick reconciliation process unlikely.

“I can see this going on for a very long time, I can also see this being ended tomorrow, with Qatar making some concession because it is in a grim position,” said an analyst of Gulf politics who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

tkhan@thenational.ae