An imminent breakthrough on the Qatar rift is possible but unlikely

GULF COUNTRIES - Report 30 Nov 2020 by Rory Fyfe and Justin Alexander

* A regional visit by Jared Kushner has raised hopes of a breakthrough on the rift, although he is more focused on the Israel normalization push.
* The best outcome, still unlikely, is an easing of the airspace blockade by Saudi Arabia.
* For Saudi Arabia a resolution could help ease tensions with Biden and reunite the GCC in the face of the perceived threat from Iran.
* The core issue underlying the rift, Qatar’s relations with political Islam, remains very live, and it is hard to see what Qatar could offer that would enable a face-saving climb down.
* Qatar has also been making progress in seeking legal redress on aspects of the embargo, embarrassing the Quartet and also providing some chips it could trade as part of a resolution.
* A resolution, if and when it finally comes, would facilitate GCC financial assistance for Oman, Bahrain and other needy states in the vicinity. It should also provide a welcome economic boost for Dubai.

Jared Kushner is visiting Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week, which some commentators see as a final push by the Trump Administration to resolve the three-and-a-half-year rift between Qatar and “the Quartet” of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (WSJ, Ax, Rt). There have also been several mildly optimistic statements by US and Qatari officials in recent months. However, although the spat between Gulf neighbors may seem far more tractable than many of the region’s animosities and conflicts, a face-saving solution still looks difficult given the intensity of bile that has been directed at Qatar and several recent developments that point away from progress. At best, Saudi Arabia may ease its airspace blockade on Qatari flights.

The Qatar rift itself is unlikely to be a high priority for the outgoing Trump Administration or for Kushner personally, who is more invested in the push for normalization with Israel. It may be that Kushner will be promoting a transactional arrangement that links the resolution of the Qatar rift with moves towards normalization with Israel by Qatar and possibly Saudi Arabia. This would follow a pattern in which the US removed Sudan’s state sponsor of terrorism designation and offered the UAE F-35 jets as part of their normalization deals. However, it is unclear what reward Saudi Arabia could be offered that would plausibly get through Congress and Biden. Moreover, the Qatari and Saudi foreign ministers have repeatedly and firmly stated that they would only consider normalization in relation to a final-status Israeli-Palestinian agreement, something that is highly unlikely anytime soon. At the UN in September, Qatar’s emir strongly defended the Arab Peace Initiative, the 2002 Saudi-led proposal to offer Israel full regional normalization in return for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. The Kushner visit is likely to have a more limited goal of facilitating overflight rights for Israeli airlines.

Ignoring the normalization angle and Kushner’s visit, there remain several good reasons why Saudi Arabia would like a resolution to the rift.

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