Mohammed bin Salman and Tamim Al-Thani’s unpredictable new camaraderie as ban over Qatar is lifted

  • + From conflict to camaraderie. The rulers end their dispute at the GCC Summit. 
  • + Three-and-a-half-year ban over Qatar finally lifted. 
  • + Instability in the region will put the new relationship status to test.
Source: The Guardian, UK

Why is Mohammed bin Salman in camaraderie with Tamim al Thani? 

Answer: The pandemic and the economic situation have forced Saudi Arabia to lift the ban over Qatar. 

The inauguration of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit has put an end to the three-and-a-half-year diplomatic crisis. Despite the COVID – 19 restrictions the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Qatar greeted each other by hugging, a custom in the Arab world, showing that their differences had been solved. This image had a repercussion worldwide, being shown in almost all of the main media channels, which indicates the importance of the relation between the Gulf leaders to the whole of the international community.

It was in 2017 when Tamim al Thani was accused of supporting terrorist groups. In face of this, the so-called Arab quartet formed by; Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, United Arab Emirates and Egypt, decided to cut off all economic and diplomatic relations with Qatar. What this meant in practice was the closure of land borders, blocking the access by sea and restricting the country’s air space. 

By doing this, the quartet, led by Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, expected Qatar to give in to their exigencies. The countries demanded that Qatar stopped supporting terrorist organizations, diplomatic relations with Iran, interfering in other state’s internal affairs and close up the broadcasting service Al Jazeera, as it is considered to show a distorted version of affairs. Surprisingly, Qatar’s emir, Tamim al Thani decided to risk the blockade and not to comply with the accusations. 

After three-and-a-half years the situation hadn’t changed. Qatar still denied the accusations and the economic impact of the blockade was minimal, whereas for the other nations, especially Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, it meant a profound political wear. 

Mohammed bin Salman has been facing a delicate situation at home for the past years, this has meant the need of starting to put off fires, particularly those related to the international scene. As Chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs and Minister of Defense, the Crown Prince plays an essential role in the country’s foreign policy, he has much to win but much to lose too. 

While the international scene was more or less stable and the blockade was on a stand-still there was not much reason for the Saudi Prince to worry. However, the pandemic and the deterioration of the Gulf countries’ economy forced them to cooperate and therefore, to deal with the blockade. The GCC agreed to elaborate joint measures in order to ensure food and medicine safety. This situation and the willingness of the other council members forced Mohammed bin Salman to take a step back and accept the end of the blockade. 

What does Mohammed bin Salman want?

Answer: Mohammed bin Salman’s position as Crown Prince is in a delicate situation due to discrepancies with his father, King Salman.

At this moment, Saudi Arabia is facing numerous issues, both in the Middle East region and within the international community. Right now, Saudi Arabia is playing an important part in the Yemen war, relations with Iran are very tense which also affects the relations with Qatar and, on top of this, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to boost his new economic plan, Vision 2030, while in commercial disputes with other OPEC members.

If the problems that Saudi Arabia as a country is facing seem like a lot, the ones within the Saud family are way more complex. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, but it follows a practice, known as Shura, which establishes that the ruler has to take into consideration the opinions of the Allegiance Council. This has implications for the Crown Prince as such institution burdens his sphere of control, making his decisions susceptible and up for scrutiny as the Council has a say on who is going to be the heir to the throne.

Therefore, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman faces the pressure of trying to modernize the country and gaining the approval of the Allegiance Council of which some members are already against him as his father broke tradition when deposing the last Crown Prince in favor of his son.  

So, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman faces the pressure of trying to modernize the country and gaining the approval of the Allegiance Council of which some members are already against him. 

Amongst the Prince’s plans there is consecrating Saudi Arabia as a key player in the Middle East and the Muslim world. What he is doing to achieve this is trying to beat Iran in the international sphere through the military intervention in Yemen whose final goal was to stop the hutias, Iran’s allies, and the economic blockade to Qatar. At the same time, he is focusing on ensuring Saudi Arabia’s economic dominance by lowering the oil prices and coming up with a solution to the country’s dependence on said oil.

With this, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to score some points with the Council. The Saud family is extremely conservative and values tradition above anything else. Therefore, if the Crown Prince shows that he is able to maintain, or even improve, Saudi Arabia’s position in the region as well as its economic dominance, it is highly probable that he will win the Council support.

However , in spite of his efforts, Mohammed bin Salman’s plans are not going as expected. The failure of the Yemeni war and the Qatari blockade amongst other scandals have created a division between the King and the Crown Prince which brings up doubts about the succession and opens up the possibility of King Salman withdrawing his support from his son.  

Also, at an international level these mistakes might lead the rest of the world to think that Saudi Arabia is weak, and they might turn their eye towards a stronger player, something that Tamim al Thani has proved that Qatar can be.

Overall, what Mohammed bin Salman wants is to maintain and consolidate his current position as leader. As for what he wants in relation to Qatar, that would be for it to be a demonstration of soft power. Having solved the Qatari conflict can be, on the one side, understood as if he is a leader willing to commit to others and forge new relations with important countries, and on the other side, gives him an opportunity to try to re-impose Saudi Arabia’s influence on Qatar, bringing the country back under Saudi control. 

What does Tamim al Thani want?

Answer: To keep Qatar as an independent actor in the regional and international sphere, out of Saudi Arabia’s influence.  

Ever since Qatar stopped being a British protectorate it has been under the influence of Saudi Arabia. However, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Qatar started fearing that something similar could happen to them and, because of this, the al Thani family started directing their policy away from Saudi interests, at the same time, they tried to maintain a friendly relationship with their neighbour. 

Since 2013, when Tamim al Thani became emir, Qatar’s foreign policy has been even more focused on diplomacy and soft power, in order to try and defy the established order in the Middle East. Tamim al Thani’s policy has been based on two main areas; maintenance of good relations with international powers, mainly with the United States, – though this was before the Trump era-, and to place the country as a key player when it comes to regional issues. 

This strategy obviously affects Tamim al Thani’s relationship with Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saud family. If the Emir is successful, he can bring Qatar to a position in which the country replaces Saudi Arabia as leader in the Persian Gulf.

The emir, knowing the limitations of his country, aims to position it internationally not as a superpower, but as a major international mediator and collaborator. However, the blockade imposed by the Arab quartet and attempts to get away from the Saudi influence have led Tamim al Thani to a position in which he will no longer be able to play in all levels. 

By managing to avoid the consequences of the ban and to comply with the exigencies of the Arab Quartet, Tamim al Thani has shown how strong Qatar can be and has enraged the other monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the Emir will have to choose a side, as the Arab Quartet only welcomed Qatar back with open arms due to the difficult situation the countries are going through at the moment.

While their rapid acceptance of the end of the blockade and attempts to leave behind disagreements with other council members can soften relationships with them, the fact that it continues to maintain ties with countries such as Iran and Turkey will force Tamim al Thani to choose a side.

What is Tamim al Thani doing?

Answer: Proving his country’s strength

Qatar’s geographic position gives the country envious advantages, and the fact that it’s the nation with the highest rent per capita proves that this envy is justified. However, its size and the fact that is surrounded by other superpowers puts the nation in a delicate position. 

So, Qatar had to escape the Saudi control, something pretty difficult as the whole area surrounding Qatar is under that country’s influence. Therefore, the Emir decided to use the country’s broadcasting channel, Al Jazeera, to promote their role at both the regional and international levels. The channel has positioned itself as an open space where all points of view are welcomed, including groups considered as terrorist by the West, and representatives of the State of Israel. Something that nor Saudi Arabia nor the Trump administration saw with good eyes. 

It might be seen as if Tamim al Thani was playing on the edge of the cliff. But, in spite of worsening the country’s relations with some of the biggest players, mainly the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the United States, this has helped Qatar to establish stronger ties with other nations such as Iran and Turkey. 

As the blockade proved, the Emir’s policy has been a success. When the Arab quartet closed borders and imposed the embargo, it seemed like the end for the tiny nation, as nearly 90% of its goods come from these four countries. However, Iran and Turkey’s friendship proved fundamental and helped the country to overpass the blockade. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Tamim al Thani seems to be the one benefited by the situation and this might affect the balance of power in the Middle East. 

Although Mohammed bin Salman was the one promoting the actions, both the start of the blockade and the end of it, the latter wasn’t a decision that he took willingly, but rather forcefully by the disadvantageous circumstances. On the other hand, Tamim al Thani has managed to get his country out of the blockade with what seems to be minimum damage.

In terms of what all this means to you. For individual citizens, the lift of the ban is important mostly in terms of travel as now, foreign nationals living and working in Qatar (which constitute a high percentage of the population) and citizens from other countries can book flights in and out of Qatar and obtain travel documents once again.

However, from the international perspective, as the GCC summit has not shown any evolution in the de-escalation of tensions amongst the countries, problems might arise again in the long term. 

Mistrust between Qatar and the members of the Arab quartet might affect the numerous conflicts taking place in the Middle East area as well as rise tensions between the Saudi and Iranian areas of influence which can also lead to disagreements amongst the OPEC members. 

It won’t come as a surprise that the state of affairs in the Middle East will be of importance for the US foreign policy as the new Biden administration plans to go back to the nuclear agreement with Iran and will try to solve the Yemeni conflict.