January 19, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 253

Was The GCC Reconciliation Summit A Pause Or A Breakthrough?

January 19, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 253

Artwork by Saudi artist Basma al-Balawi celebrating the 41st GCC Summit at Al-Ula

The recent reconciliation among feuding Gulf states is potentially a positive, hopeful step. Whether engineered by self-interest, last-gasp Trump administration diplomacy, or fear of a new Democratic administration in Washington, it was an effort to repair a painful and costly episode in regional history. The 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit at Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia ostensibly healed a breach that had last for over three years as Qatar faced off against four opponents – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. The concluding Al-Ula Declaration, aimed at bolstering GCC unity, was diplomatic boilerplate.[1] But the actual steps of restoring air and land transport (by the anti-Qatar bloc) and the freezing of some international lawsuits (by Qatar) were more tangible.

While official statements were cautious, Qatar's supporters were less restrained in claiming victory. On Twitter, former Al-Jazeera director Yasser Abu Hilaleh spoke of "victory over the blockade, without surrendering any principles or positions, no return to the [2013] Riyadh Agreement and no yielding to the 13 demands."

Despite the boasting, there is much good that could come out of a real reconciliation. The dispute was expensive for both sides, disrupted trade and economic ties, encouraged regional meddling, and generally introduced additional elements of instability and tension into an already unstable region. But was the Al-Ula reconciliation a true breakthrough, or was it more a pause in what will turn out to be a longer struggle for power?

Certainly, the countries that pushed for this step the most – Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, rather than the United States – are hoping for the best. But I am skeptical because there is a basic problem that has not and probably cannot be resolved. This is the essence of how Qatar sees its role in the region and in the world. The important human factor of personal friction between aggressive young leaderships, in Riyadh, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, cannot be ignored. But the other factor is Qatar's great success in power projection through its Faustian alliance with the partisans of political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, in the region. This is a fateful relationship seen as a threat by several of its neighbors. Saudi Arabia once was the godfather of global Salafism – a heritage the Kingdom now seeks to distance itself from – and used it as a way to gain influence worldwide. The Saudi leadership eventually saw this patronage as problematic and changed policies. Qatar created for itself a similar role as the great patron of Islamism, both regionally and beyond.

Qatar's role as the bankroller and backstop of Islamist movements and states (Erdogan's Turkey, the Hamas-ruled Gaza) has brought it regional power. Qatar is a tiny country – it has more Indians and Bangladeshis than Qatari citizens, who constitute only 12% of their own country's population – but it has gained great influence through an adept combination of money, media, and politics. One can decry such an outcome while at the same time marveling that it has proven to be so wildly successful.

Given that much of Qatar's success is driven by the efforts of proxies, it is particularly interesting to look at the actions of its partners after the GCC Summit. How Turkey and Hamas interact in the future with Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be something to watch. Obviously, anything related to Iran, given regional tensions, Iranian ambitions, and the Biden administration, will also be an important factor.

As far as other proxies, the warning signs are already there and don't seem to bode well for the future. Qatar's relationship with Turkey has borne toxic fruit in the development of a horde of Arabic-language, mostly Islamist, propaganda outlets based in Istanbul and used to wage unremitting ideological warfare against foes – mostly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.[2] One of the most prominent is Mekameleen TV, which has a strong anti-Egyptian regime focus and has had a clear Qatari connection, as it has been available regionally on a Qatar-owned satellite.[3]

Istanbul-based Mekameleen TV asking whether the UAE has "betrayed" Egypt

After Al-Ula, I was particularly interested in seeing how the tone of these stations had shifted, if they had shifted at all. Mekameleen TV seems to be talking less about Saudi Arabia than it was before, but in addition to unremitting propaganda against Egypt's Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the channel has been relentless against the UAE in recent weeks, since the GCC reconciliation.

A January 9 segment featuring lead anchor Muhammad Nasr Ali sought to push the idea that the UAE was "betraying" Al-Sisi by cozying up to the triumphant Qataris.[4] Another segment, from January 17, attacked the UAE for allowing a "gay rights conference" to be held in Dubai later this year.[5] Still another segment, from January 12, saw the UAE as the big loser in the region, with Qatar expected to play a future key role of "peace dove," reconciling Turkey and Iran with Arab states. This potential Qatari role was contrasted positively with that of the UAE, ally of Israel, an Israel which "posed an existential and strategic threat to Egypt."[6] This Israeli threat, Egyptian commentator Hamza Zubaa noted, is to Egypt and not to President Al-Sisi. "The two are not the same," he said, adding that even within the military leadership of the Egyptian regime, there is unhappiness with the president's leadership. Reconciliation deal or not, the twin goals of relentlessly attacking, especially, the legitimacy and leadership of Egypt and the UAE seem to be very much alive.[7]

A January 6 piece by the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiyya hinted that Turkey-based Arabic-language Islamist and opposition channels like Mekameleen may be facing financial troubles in the near future as funding (supposedly Qatari but not named as such in the article) begins to dry up, forcing some channels to consolidate, close shop, or move to London from Istanbul.[8] If these proxy attack dogs do decrease, and if they no longer have access to Qatari satellite space, that will be tangible evidence that there is some sincerity on both sides of the Gulf divide. If they continue, it will show that this vital, if toxic, element of Qatari "soft power" is too valuable to lose.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], January 6, 2021.

[2] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 222, The Arabic Propaganda War From Istanbul, July 17, 2020.







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