Could the Gaza conflict help thaw GCC relations?
ABU DHABI // The surprise meeting between Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was prompted by the conflict in Gaza, yet it could also be a step towards resolving tensions within the GCC, analysts said.
Last March, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha amid unprecedented acrimony between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states over Qatar’s controversial support for the Muslim Brotherhood .
The meeting, held on Tuesday evening, was the first since the diplomatic spat erupted into public view. That Emir Tamim personally travelled to meet King Abdullah at his Jeddah palace was a sign that the two monarchs want to move towards normalising ties, while also trying to snuff out another regional fire before it becomes more of a danger.
“The meeting was to try to bridge the gaps between Arab states and come to a type of unity approach to have a [Gaza] ceasefire that lasts,” said Dr Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
More than 680 Palestinians have been killed during the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which began on July 8. Thirty-four Israelis have been killed.
Achieving that unified approach would mean lessening the regional rivalry that the conflict has brought into stark focus.
An early Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire agreement was accepted by Israel, but rejected by Hamas, which said it was not contacted about it.
Afterwards, Qatar, one of Hamas’ main backers, which was reportedly also working on a ceasefire initiative, stepped in to offer itself as a conduit to communicate with the group, which many among the international community consider a terrorist organisation.
While the United States and United Nations encouraged a role for Qatar, its policy of supporting Islamist groups such as Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was what caused tensions with other GCC states to boil over in the first place.
“Qatar wants to capitalise on all of this and try to take advantage of the situation,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at Emirates University. “But Qatar is no longer the regional player that it used to be. Qatar has a very reduced influence these days.”
Amid the regional politicking, Egypt, which borders the Gaza Strip and is the traditional mediator of conflicts between Israel and Hamas, is where the international community appears to be looking to for the next ceasefire proposal.
“It is Cairo that we need to go to for any initiatives, it’s not Qatar,” Mr Abdullah said. “The dynamics of the region have shifted against Qatar.”
While Saudi Arabia, one of Egypt’s main backers, does not want Qatar to play a prominent role in mediating the Gaza conflict, it recognises that the growing number of regional crises must be addressed and Doha is part of that equation.
Already facing ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia does not want the Gaza war to become another opportunity for its regional rivals. Although their relationship was strained by the war in Syria, Hamas and Iran have recently moved to repair ties.
For Riyadh, ending the conflict before Hamas begins searching for additional supporters means talking to Qatar.
“What Saudi Arabia really doesn’t want is to have Iran get involved in this issue,” said Mr Karasik. “This is not in anybody’s interest given the nature of this conflict. They don’t want to see Iran’s fingerprints in this.”
A Doha-based researcher said that while Emir Tamim’s trip came as a surprise, it might be part of efforts made in the last few months “to restore normal ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia”.
Mr Abdullah was more cautious, saying that Qatar has made many promises that remain unfulfilled. But he added that the visit was “a good move” and that Saudi Arabia was the right place for Qatar to start to try to end its regional isolation.
Doha is scheduled to host the 35th annual GCC summit later this year and it is likely that diplomatic momentum is building for tensions to be eased ahead of that meeting.
“If anything comes out of [the meeting] it’s just trying to get our own Gulf affairs in order before things go from bad to worse,” Mr Abdullah said.
Updated: July 23, 2014 04:00 AM