The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting this week is refocusing attention on the dispute in the Arabian Gulf between Qatar and the quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt. Conventional wisdom says that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will slow roll discussions about ending the Gulf rift until the Biden administration comes knocking. Resolving the seemingly insoluble royal dispute, which interrupts US military coordination in the Gulf and hampers the business of multinational corporations, would grant the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden an early foreign policy win. In the quartet’s view, this would hopefully stave off looming threats about the United States ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt or pulling the rug out from under the coalition in Yemen.
Rift parties have agreed to undertake working groups, ostensibly to arrive at technical solutions on specific points of dispute like the air blockade and family travel across borders. This working group construct looks like a smart way for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to graciously ignore the Trump administration’s full-court press on ending the rift in the last month of the administration.
But couldn’t Saudi Arabia and the UAE grant the favor of this foreign policy win to the Trump administration while still greeting the Biden team with the promise of easier engagement with the Middle East lubricated by a reunified GCC and less whiny Egypt? Wouldn’t this be a double win for the quartet? Wouldn’t this provide the hedge urged by Gulf advisors who whisper in royal ears that Trump will run again in 2024?
Here’s how they do it…this week.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is logically worried about the legal case against him filed in a US federal court in August by Saad al-Jabri, claiming that the crown prince sent a team of henchmen to kill him in Canada in 2018. The basis of MBS’s defense is that as a head of state he is immune from prosecution. Only he is not the head of state. Yet. The decision about immunity in cases involving a de facto head of state falls to the Department of State. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could be moved to grant it, in exchange for specific actions from Saudi Arabia. Tony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for the position, not so much.
The crown prince cannot meet the Trump administration’s top ask, normalization with Israel, as long as King Salman, the current head of the Saudi state, opposes it. So he can’t offer that. But the rift is a young man’s game. MBS has the power to pull Saudi out of it. And in exchange for personal immunity, ending the rift is a bargain.
The gig is up on the rift anyway. The quartet made the gamble that President Trump could be convinced to abandon Qatar as a partner and when that did not happen as fully as they’d hoped, the quartet doubled down. Biden’s team will not be sympathetic to arguments supporting the rift, and they will continue the drumbeat begun by the Trump administration in conversations with officials in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Cairo: “If Qatar is currently sponsoring terrorism in line with the US legal definition, as you claim, bring us the intelligence and we will verify it then act on it. Until then, no proof by intel, no US action.”
So the time is ideal to end the rift and MBS has an irresistible reason to do it if the exchange can be made. But face must be saved in the UAE. Crown Prince Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) was perceived by the Trump administration as the immovable foundation of the rift. How can an end to it be framed to serve Emirati interests?
Look to Dubai. Prior to the pandemic, Dubai was placed in a precarious position by the onset of the rift and urged against it, straining relations with Abu Dhabi. According to S&P Global, one-third of the UAE’s gas supply comes from Qatar and will continue to for the next five years, despite the recent find in the Jebel Ali field. This statistic speaks mostly to Dubai, not Abu Dhabi. During the course of the rift, if Qatar chose to sever the gas contract with the UAE, currently in place until 2032, productivity in Dubai would plummet overnight. It is a fallacy that the Jebel Ali find will make the UAE gas independent in a timeframe that makes the rift logical. Every year of this vulnerability makes operating a corporate hub or a distribution center or a hospital in Dubai look like a risky investment.
The pandemic has further increased Dubai’s economic vulnerability, as evidenced by a new bond issuance in the fall of 2020, belt-tightening at state-owned enterprises like Emirates Air, and discomforting budget shortfalls due to the drop in both tourism and oil prices. Add to this the pressure of payments due on debt incurred a decade ago to pull Dubai out of a global financial crisis.
Dubai needs a break to return to the kind of economic stability that keeps investors there. With a nod to end the rift, MBZ can secure the energy that sustains Dubai and restore investor confidence. He can correctly claim that it is in the Emirates’s interest to restore relations with Qatar, thumb his nose at Iran, and please two US administrations.
Discussions in the UAE about the impact of the rift on Dubai have been internal royal family debates to date. A public appeal from Dubai to the GCC for ending the rift, and a gracious indulgence of this request by Abu Dhabi—followed quickly and easily by Riyadh and Manama—could bring a dignified end to a dispute that has run its course. Egypt might not love it, but they would be incentivized by both sides of the rift to accept.
The quartet should be pleased that Washington is paying closer attention to Qatar’s foreign policy as a result of the awareness it raised and will act if these policies brush up against US laws about support to terrorism. No further ground will be gained by pressing the case of the rift with the new Biden administration, as it did not come after spring 2018 from pressing the case with the Trump administration. Everyone wins if the rift ends now. Any later, and MBS loses his shot at immunity and the UAE loses its chance to please both political parties in the US. The time to act is this week.
Kirsten Fontenrose is director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.