Saudi Arabia says end to years-long boycott of Qatar is ‘in reach’

Kushner has been holding talks in both countries; resolving dispute could restore calm among US allies amid climbing tensions with Iran

A combination image shows then-Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) during a press conference in the capital Riyadh on April 25, 2016; and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (R) attending the 136th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh on December 10, 2015. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)
A combination image shows then-Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) during a press conference in the capital Riyadh on April 25, 2016; and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (R) attending the 136th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh on December 10, 2015. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat said Friday that an end to the years-long boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations “looks in reach” for all involved, though he offered no details on how this feud would be resolved.

The remarks by Saudi Prince Faisal bin Farhan followed comments earlier in the day from Kuwait, which has been mediating in the dispute and which said that ongoing talks over the crisis have been “fruitful.”

Resolving the dispute could restore calm among nations at the heart of American defense strategy in the Middle East, especially as tensions remain high with Iran and as US President-elect Joe Biden is poised to enter the White House next month.

However, the other three nations boycotting Qatar — Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — did not immediately acknowledge this burst of optimism. Over a year ago, a similar hope for an end to the dispute quickly faded.

The boycott has torn apart the typically clubby Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation group comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Qatar, an energy-rich nation that is scheduled to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has seen its state-run Qatar Airways blocked from the boycotting nations’ airspace and its only land border to Saudi Arabia shut over the crisis.

Speaking to Italy’s annual Mediterranean Dialogues, Prince Faisal, who is also the kingdom’s foreign minister, said: “We’ve made significant progress in the last few days.” He thanked Kuwait and US President Donald Trump by name.

“We hope that this progress can lead to a final agreement which looks in reach,” the prince said. “And I can say I am somewhat optimistic that we are close to finalizing an agreement between all the nations in the dispute to come to a resolution that we think will be satisfactory to all.”

He did not elaborate on any of the negotiations. However, his comments came just after Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah, Kuwait’s foreign minister, gave a brief statement as Kuwaiti state television began its 4 p.m. newscast.

A man walking past the Qatar Airways branch in the Saudi capital Riyadh, after it had suspended all flights to Saudi Arabia following a severing of relations between major gulf states and gas-rich Qatar, June 5, 2017. (AFP/FAYEZ NURELDINE)

Sheikh Ahmed similarly thanked Trump and said Kuwait’s new ruling emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, also had been involved.

“Fruitful discussions have taken place in the past period, where all parties affirmed their keenness on Gulf and Arab solidarity and stability and on reaching a final agreement that achieves the aspired permanent solidarity between their countries,” Sheikh Ahmed said, without elaborating.

Sheikh Ahmed also thanked Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his senior advisers. Kushner and other American officials have traveled in the waning days of the Trump administration to Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the crisis. What Kushner and his colleagues said in the negotiations remains unknown.

Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, immediately wrote on Twitter that the Kuwaiti statement was an “imperative step towards resolving the GCC crisis.”

“We express our gratitude to the State of Kuwait for their mediation & the United States for their efforts,” Sheikh Mohammed wrote. “The interest and security of the people of the Gulf & the region remain our top priority.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, listens to Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud during their meeting at the State Department, October 14, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Manuel Balce Cenata/POOL/AFP)

Oman, which also tried to mediate the dispute, welcomed the announcement in a statement carried by state television.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking remotely to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Manama Dialogue, said he hoped any agreement between Qatar and the boycotting countries would be made on a “foundation that is lasting.”

“We are very hopeful that the dispute between the Saudis and the Qataris can be resolved,” Pompeo said. “We’re going to keep working to do what we can facilitate conversations and dialogues.”

“The view from the United States is that this conflict, [it] is time to be resolved,” Pompeo added.

Sheikh Mohammed, speaking earlier to the Mediterranean Dialogues, similarly said that “this needless crisis needs to come to an end.”

“There are some movements that we hope that this will put an end to this crisis,” he said. “We believe actually that Gulf unity is very important for the security of the region.”

Leaders from the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council meet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 9, 2018. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the development and was “encouraged by the statement” on prospects for a resolution to the Gulf Arab rift, said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. Guterres also lauded Kuwait’s efforts in “building bridges of understanding in the Gulf region and beyond,” the spokesman said.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut ties to Qatar on June 5, 2017, just after a summit in Saudi Arabia in which Gulf leaders met with Trump. They say the crisis stems from Qatar’s support for extremist groups in the region, charges denied by Doha. Qatar has backed Islamists in the Mideast, something strongly opposed by the four Arab states, particularly the UAE.

The four nations also have pointed to Qatar’s close relationship with Iran, with which it shares a massive offshore gas field that provides the peninsular nation its wealth. Qatar restored full diplomatic ties to Iran amid the dispute.

Qatar’s Sheikh Mohammed defended his country’s ties to both Iran and Turkey, which has a small military base in Doha, during his remarks at the Mediterranean Dialogues. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif separately tweeted that Tehran welcomes Kuwait’s announcement and that “we hope reconciliation contributes to stability and political & economic development for all peoples of our region.”

While the other three boycotting countries offered no comment, Saudi Arabia’s move may be aimed at the incoming Biden administration. Already, Biden has criticized the kingdom over its long-running war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

In a debate last year, Biden said he believed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing and promised to treat Riyadh “like the pariah that they are.” Resolving the crisis could help the kingdom with Biden.

Ending the crisis also helps the US as America relies on Qatar as a regional partner, with Doha now hosting talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Some 10,000 American troops are stationed at Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base, which also serves as the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command.

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