The embrace last week between Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, and Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, ended the three-year blockade of the tiny gas-rich emirate by its powerful neighbours, led by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates.
The terms of the deal will only become fully known as they are implemented. But already the agreement — a tactical rapprochement rather than a reconciliation between embittered rivals — looks like a score-draw for Qatar against heavy odds. The deal restores the air, land and sea links to the emirate that were severed in June 2017, and lifts the trade embargo.
At the outset, the blockade was menacing. It had the initial if brief support of President Donald Trump. It looked as if Saudi Arabia planned to invade Qatar. The threat receded after the Pentagon reminded the Trump White House that Qatar was host to Al Udeid, the largest American air base in the wider Middle East, policing an arc of crisis from Yemen to Afghanistan.
Instead, the anti-Qatar crusaders came up with a laundry list of unrealistic demands. These included: the closure of Al Jazeera, the Qatari broadcaster; ending support for Islamist movements; abjuring the emirate’s links with Iran and alliance with Turkey, which has a military base in the emirate; and submitting to its neighbours’ monitoring for 12 years.
Nothing was heard of this last week. Qatar seems to have agreed only to drop legal cases against its adversaries at the International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Trade Organization. Both sides say they will de-escalate hostilities in the media. Qatar had already scaled back its commitment to Islamist insurgents from Libya to Syria. Along with Turkey, however, it has maintained support for the pan-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, abhorred by the UAE and the Saudis.
Almost all parties to this angry spat acknowledge it pushed Qatar further into the arms of Iran and Turkey — and that the emirate will not dismantle the alternative supply lines it was forced to build. Qatar cannot, in any event, dissolve its links with Iran — the two countries share the world’s largest natural gasfield. Its adversaries know this. After all, Abu Dhabi, the lead emirate of the UAE, renewed an oilfield concession with Qatar in 2018 despite the embargo. Dubai, the Emirati showcase, still operates as an extra lung for an Iran under economic siege.
More remarkable still, Gulf sources say Qatar is being asked to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Turkey as part of the deal. This is galling to the Saudis and the Emiratis, who regard the regional adventurism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, as a threat.
The Saudi reset with a US under Joe Biden is hard, too. Prince Mohammed had put nearly all the kingdom’s eggs in the Trump basket, and drew the anger of the US Congress for the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen and flooding the market with cheap oil. Mr Biden has spoken of reviewing the 75-year-old alliance with the kingdom.
The Qatar deal is not the only expiatory offering to team Biden. The Saudis are cutting oil production by 1m barrels a day for February and March, which will help US shale oil companies. They may soon release feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul. But outgoing secretary of state Mike Pompeo has complicated efforts to end the war in Yemen by designating Houthi rebels there as terrorists — one of several grenades Mr Trump is leaving on the table.
Qatar, envied in the Gulf as host to the football World Cup of 2022, has long since upped its lobbying game in Washington. Even with the certainty of more acrimony down the road with its neighbours, it has more than held its own.
Get alerts on Middle Eastern politics & society when a new story is published