Saudi Arabia, its allies and Qatar have committed to negotiations to resolve a dispute that has raged for more than three years, signalling a shift in a crisis that has divided the oil-rich Gulf and pitted US allies against each other.
Kuwait, which led days of mediation efforts with the US, said on Friday the Arab rivals had “confirmed their commitment” to reach a final agreement and preserve “Gulf solidarity”.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut transport and diplomatic links with Qatar in mid-2017, accusing their neighbour of supporting Islamist groups and being too close to Iran.
A person briefed on the talks said it was the first time all five Arab countries involved in the dispute had agreed to negotiations to end the crisis.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, said the Kuwaiti statement was “an imperative step” towards resolving the dispute.
Qatar denied the allegations against it, and all sides had refused to make concessions, resisting pressure from Washington’s to resolve the crisis. But in recent weeks, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has stepped up Riyadh’s efforts to repair relations with Doha.
However, analysts said this week’s talks, which involved Jared Kushner, US president Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, appeared to have achieved less than had been hoped for.
“There are definitely indications that the gaps between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are narrowing,” said Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank. “There is potential for an improvement in relations, but perhaps it’s a little too much too soon to expect a complete reconciliation given the extent of the animosity on both sides.”
Some in the region believe the attempts by Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, to ease the crisis is part of an effort to improve his standing with President-elect Joe Biden, who has publicly criticised the kingdom over human rights abuses.
Analysts say the Trump administration has also been keen to secure a breakthrough before its term ends in January. Mr Kushner held talks with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, on Wednesday as part of a tour of the region where he pressed the issue.
Qatar hosts the US’s largest military base in the Middle East and the Trump administration has been concerned that the dispute weakens the Arab alliance it has sought to forge against Iran. It has also been frustrated that Tehran has benefited financially as the embargo has meant flights to and from Qatar are forced to use Iranian airspace.
There had been speculation that Riyadh and Doha would agree to “confidence building” measures. Securing a deal to allow Qatari flights to fly over rival Gulf states was considered to be one of the likeliest first steps to improve relations. But there was no mention of any such moves in Friday’s statements.
Officials and analysts have said the UAE had been the most resistant to agree to the rapprochement, partly because Abu Dhabi is particularly concerned about Qatar’s relationship with Turkey. The UAE has become increasingly worried about Turkey’s influence in the Arab world and accuses Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of pursuing a “neocolonial” policy in the region.
Sheikh Mohammed, Qatar’s foreign minister, told a conference on Friday that any resolution to the crisis should be “holistic” and that Doha did not want to distinguish between countries in dialogue towards forging a unified Gulf.
He declined to distance Qatar from Turkey, which deployed troops to Qatar when the dispute erupted in 2017. “It is our duty to stand with Turkey when they face any difficulties,” he said.
After imposing the embargo three years ago, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi presented Doha with an extraordinary list of 13 demands that included closing Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned television network, curbing Doha’s relations with Iran and closing a Turkish military base.
Gulf officials caution that a full resolution to the dispute, which became increasingly toxic as it was inflamed by accusations and counter accusations, is still some distance away.