In medieval times, Arab tribes had an unwritten agreement that prohibited infighting in four “forbidden months” – the months of Muharram, Rajab, Dhu al-Qa’dah, and dhu al-Hijjah, according to the Arabic calendar. This agreement was an armistice deal that allowed trade and pilgrimage, without solving the core differences between rival parties. The latest reconciliation with Qatar can be considered a modern version of this medieval practice, albeit possibly for four years ahead.
Reports suggest that in addition to the final statement of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s latest summit, the Gulf States have reached an understanding in terms of the reconciliation between the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt) and Qatar. In which, the Quartet have given up their previous demands from Qatar, replacing them with general principles for managing relations between the countries, such as non-infringement on states’ sovereignty, non-interference in their internal affairs, and cooperation in fighting threats and terror. It was also agreed that the points of contention between Qatar and its neighbours would be discussed in future bilateral talks between Qatar and each of the relevant countries.
Pledges. Principals. Promises. Whatever choice of words one can pick, what Qatar has offered in return for reconciliation are promises that will be hard to substantiate. On the surface, the reconciliation seems to be working well; even Egypt, an ardent opponent of Doha, has resumed diplomatic ties with Qatar.
Two Egyptian intelligence sources told Reuters that in a meeting with Egyptian and Emirati security officials, a Qatari foreign ministry official pledged that Qatar would not interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs. He also pledged “a change of orientation for Qatar’s Al Jazeera television channel, which is a state-funded and state-owned media outlet towards Cairo.”
But has Al-Jazeera changed its orientation? Egyptian anchor amr Adib has highlighted a report by Al-Jazeera Mubasher asserting that freedom has evaporated from Egypt, ten years after the Arab Spring. In another report, Al-Jazeera shares a report from another Qatari outlet critical of Egypt’s new ambitious high-speed rail project. One can debate the accuracy of those reports, but their hostility, albeit in subtle ways, towards the Egyptian leadership with whom Qatar has supposedly reconciled is undeniable.
By posting those reports, it seems Qatar is testing the resolve and unity of the Arab Quartet. The reports contradict the spirit of reconciliation, snookering its opponents to choose from two bitter options: Either respond openly and risk breaking the unity of the Quartet, or remain quiet and allow Qatar a free pass.
Without solving the core problems with Qatar, the Arab Quartet are facing the prospect of growing fissures among them, or even the potential of total disintegration of the Quartet’s unity as some of its members shift to discreet enmity towards Qatar while maintaining a veneer of unity. Both will be tough and will give Qatar a huge advantage over its opponents.
Emirati writer Marayam al-Kaabi tweeted that Qatar before the boycott is Qatar after the reconciliation; nothing has changed, except the emergence of new voices asking not to harm the reconciliation.
Indeed, despite the lack of “hard” guarantees preventing Qatar from reneging on its pledges (as happened in the past), it will be difficult for the Arab Quartet to embark on another boycott of Qatar. If the Quartet does so, it will be back to square one, facing similar challenges that followed the 2017 boycott, from negative headlines, and potential legal challenges to foreign pressure, especially from the Biden administration, to reconcile again.
No matter how you assess the outcomes of the latest GCC summit and Qatar reconciliation, one aspect has to be clear: The reconciliation in itself is not the only gain Qatar clinched at the GCC summit; perhaps more important is the fact that another boycott in the future would be an extremely unlikely event.
Unlike the four forbidden months during medieval times, the Arab Quartet is heading for at least “four forbidden years” of tough handling of their “sister,” Qatar, without another chance of a boycott, but with the potential for disunity or discreet enmity.