Saudi Arabia opened its borders with Qatar for the first time in three years, a leap toward easing a dispute that split the energy-producing region and complicated US efforts to isolate Iran.
The decision to open land, air and sea borders comes ahead of a summit of regional leaders in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. Qatar’s ruler will attend for the first time since the 2017 row that cut trade, travel and diplomatic ties with the kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Bahran and Egypt.
Egypt has agreed in principle to open its airspace for Qatari planes and will do so if unspecified conditions are met, Saudi-backed Al Arabiya TV reported. Spokesmen for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry and presidency didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The steps were pushed through as President Donald Trump prepares to leave office and his successor, Joe Biden, vows to renew diplomacy with Tehran. The breakthrough is timely — on Monday Iran seized a South Korea-flagged tanker and announced it would ramp up its nuclear enrichment activities.
Qatar’s main equities benchmark rose the most in the Middle East following the announcement, with the majority of its members gaining.
The dispute stretched beyond the Gulf region, with the countries lining up on opposite sides of conflicts and geopolitical squabbles in the wider Middle East and in Africa.
Abu Dhabi, which led the boycott with Riyadh, didn’t appear to immediately join the accord but signaled optimism. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Twitter that Tuesday’s Gulf Cooperation Council summit would “bring back Gulf cohesion,” prioritizing the region’s security, stability and prosperity.
“There’s more work ahead of us and we’re on the right track,” he said. Gargash’s comments echoed the sentiment expressed by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said the summit would create “reunification and solidarity to face the challenges that our region witnesses.”
Leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council — comprising Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE — will hold their summit in the northwestern Saudi town of Al Ula.
The resolution has wider economic and financial implications for Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and one of the richest countries per capita. It is expected to bolster prospects for Qatar’s non-oil economy over the medium term, according to Fitch Ratings. It is also positive news for Qatar Airways, which had to abandon plans to add new routes and make lengthy diversions when it was unable to cross the Saudi airspace.
“For Saudi Arabia, this is an effort to take a leadership role, to try and gain some diplomatic advantage with the incoming Biden administration,” said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. It’s also “a realization perhaps that the last four years allowed too much foreign policy adventurism and experimentation,” Young said.
The boycotting nations had accused Doha of meddling in their internal affairs, supporting hardline Islamist groups and building ties with Iran, a foe for most Gulf Arab states. Qatar denied the charges.
It was unclear how far the agreement would go in easing frictions after three years of heated rhetoric. Commentators cautioned that major differences would likely persist with most of the flash-points dividing the sides unaddressed — including the critical reporting of Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV network.
“The ideological gaps have not been closed either, so the GCC will remain fractured such below the surface, even as they paper over differences to score points with the new White House,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at Stratfor.
The deal nearly fell apart on Sunday, but the White House and other parties stayed on the phone overnight to reach an agreement, according to a person familiar with the matter. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is traveling to Saudi Arabia for the accord signing on Tuesday, the person said.
The person said the agreement was reached in exchange for Qatar dropping lawsuits it had filed in relation to the Gulf split. It wasn’t immediately clear which legal cases were involved.
Qatar had increasingly turned to Tehran and Ankara for support and relied on Iran’s airspace for overflights. That troubled the Trump administration — which had initially backed the boycott — as it sought to expand its offensive to weaken Tehran.