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Qatar blockade: What caused it and why is it coming to an end?

Following more than three years of crisis in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE have lifted their blockade of Qatar - but how did we get here?
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, left, upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia for the GCC summit (AFP)

After almost four years, Saudi Arabia announced on Monday the end of its blockade of neighbouring Qatar, restoring a degree of normalcy to the relationship between the two members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

On Tuesday evening, the Saudi Foreign Ministry announced that Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had also resumed ties with Doha, during the 41st GCC summit, with mediator Kuwait hailing the step as a breakthrough.

The move marks a major change in what had been a tense period in the Gulf. Middle East Eye takes a look at the history of the Gulf blockade.

What caused the blockade of Qatar?

The embargo was the result of tensions that had been building for many years between Qatar and its neighbours, who were concerned the nation was taking too independent a role in its foreign affairs.

The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings had alarmed many governments in the region, who saw the pro-democracy movements as a threat to their own longstanding dynastic rulers.

While most of the GCC had attempted to shore up the rulers threatened by the uprisings - such as Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak - Qatar had instead tried to cultivate relationships with some members of the opposition, most notably groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar's neighbours became increasingly concerned by the favourable coverage given to the Arab Spring protests by Qatari-affiliated media outlets, in particular Al-Jazeera.

In 2013, following mass demonstrations and an economic and political crisis, the military in Egypt overthrew the elected Brotherhood-backed government of President Mohamed Morsi. The coup was supported by the Saudis and the UAE, while Qatar condemned it. Doha's relations with Egypt deteriorated soon after, while the local Egyptian affiliate of Al Jazeera was closed down.

In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt all withdrew ambassadors from Qatar, the most severe cutting of relations since the GCC's formation in 1981. The countries cited Qatar's "interference in their internal affairs" as the cause - accusations Doha has denied.

What sparked the beginning of the blockade?

In May 2017, the Qatari News Agency was allegedly hacked and comments posted in which Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani appeared to praise Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Israel.

The incident, combined with an Al Jazeera report on damaging leaked emails from the UAE ambassador to the US, sparked off the crisis, and between 5 and 6 June, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, Egypt, the Maldives and Bahrain all announced the severing of ties with Qatar.

Some analysts pointed to the 2017 Riyadh summit, in which newly elected US President Donald Trump gave vocal support for Saudi Arabia's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and "terrorists" in the region, as a green light for the action.

Trump's administration became increasingly close to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, while other members of Trump's administration pushed for tougher action against Qatar over its ties to Iran - despite Qatar hosting thousands of US military personnel at the al-Udeid Air Base.

What did the Qatar blockade entail?

When Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt broke off relations with Qatar, they denied the small Gulf country access to their airspace and - in the case of Saudi Arabia - closed Doha's only land border.

All GCC countries ordered their citizens to leave Qatar, while Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave.

In return for the lifting of the blockade, a set of conditions was issued:

  • Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there, as well as limit trade with Iran in compliance with US and international sanctions;

  • Sever ties to so-called “terrorist organisations” and individuals designated as terrorists by the blockading countries, as well as pay "reparations" for "loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years";

  • Shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations, as well as stop funding a number of news outlets which Riyadh said Qatar supported, including Middle East Eye - an allegation refuted by MEE and Doha at the time;

  • Immediately end joint military cooperation with Turkey;

  • End "interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs" - including contacts and support for political opposition figures in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, as well as hand over "all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups";

  • Align itself with the other Gulf countries "militarily, politically, socially and economically";

  • Consent to audits over the course of a decade to ensure compliance to those conditions.

Qatar rejected the demands, describing them "unrealistic" and "not actionable". It remains unclear so far whether any of these demands have been met prior to the end of the embargo.

A number of public spats further polarised the situation since 2017.

In August of that year, satellite channel BeOutQ begins broadcasting events, including major football matches, to audiences in Saudi Arabia. Qatar-based sporting broadcaster beIN accused Riyadh of pirating its production, a complaint which was later upheld by the World Trade Organisation.

Qatar also clashed with the UAE over access to airspace in 2018, a case that ended up in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

How did the international community react to the blockade?

Trump initially put out a tweet seemingly supporting the imposition of the embargo, saying that regional leaders had "pointed to Qatar" as a source of funding for "radical ideology".

Other US officials, however, were alarmed at the isolation of a staunch US ally by another set of staunch US allies. A number of officials tried to play down Trump's comments, stressing the importance of al-Udeid airbase to the fight against the Islamic State group.

Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in particular pushed for the end of the blockade and for a de-escalation of tensions.

Qatar's strongest supporter in the wake of the blockade was Turkey, which sent food shipments and thousands of troops to the country.

Iran, whose closeness to Qatar had been one of the main drivers in the blockade, also delivered food and supplies to Qatar following the announcement.

What led to the lifting of the blockade?

Several years of mediation by Kuwait and Oman - both of which had remained relatively neutral in the dispute - attempted to get the sides to reconcile.

Despite the pressure of the blockade, Qatar was able to weather the economic fallout with help from international allies, and has seemingly fulfilled none of the 13 conditions issued by its opponents.

The US also increased its pressure on the Gulf neighbours to resolve the crisis, warning that a lack of unity would embolden its archrival Iran.

After a number of aborted attempts at establishing talks between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on 4 December 2020 Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud announced that a "final agreement looks in reach", while Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said there were "some movements that we hope will put an end (to) this crisis".

On 30 December, the GCC announced that Saudi King Salman had invited Qatar's emir to its January summit, and on Monday Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al Sabah announced that a deal had been agreed to "open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar".

On Tuesday, erstwhile opponents bin Hamad and bin Salman embraced in the Saudi city of al-Ula and signed a "solidarity and stability" deal.

"There is a desperate need today to unite our efforts to promote our region and to confront challenges that surround us, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime's nuclear and ballistic missile programme and its plans for sabotage and destruction," said bin Salman.

Diplomats and analysts say that Saudi Arabia was pushing for a deal hoping it would show US President-elect Joe Biden - who will be taking office later this month - that Riyadh is open to dialogue. 

"Despite the purported rapprochement between Gulf parties, it is worth noting that this is seemingly influenced by a desire to preempt pressure from an incoming Biden administration, more than a genuine commitment to conflict resolution," Emadeddin Badi, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Reuters.