Saudi Arabia lifts blockade of Qatar, easing crisis

LONDON – In a major thawing of relations, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and its regional allies reached a breakthrough deal with Qatar on Tuesday that ended three and a half years of impasse and restored ties between the Arabian Gulf’s neighbors.

“We look upon the efforts to heal the divide with great gratitude and appreciation,” said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the kingdom, in a statement without going into the terms of the so-called Al-Ula Agreement .

“In this regard, we also praise the friendly efforts of the United States of America and all parties that have contributed to it.”

On the previous Tuesday, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, arrived in the Saudi desert city of Al-Ula and was hugged by Mohammed bin Salman with images that were broadcast live on Saudi television.

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The agreement, brokered by Kuwait and the United States, among other things, took place at an annual summit of the leaders of the Gulf Arabs, attended by senior White House advisor Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, special envoy for international negotiations.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates Dismantling diplomatic, trade and travel ties with energy-rich Qatar in 2017, imposing a blockade that separated families and businesses and destroyed the unity of the Gulf.

The Quartet accused Doha of supporting extremist groups in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, an indictment it denies, and pointed to Qatar’s close ties with regional enemy Iran.

At the summit, Crown Prince Salman made explicit reference to Iran’s “destabilizing” activities in the Middle East.

“Today we urgently need to join our efforts to move our region forward and to face the challenges that surround us, particularly the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile program and its destructive sabotage projects,” he told other leaders .

The feud had turned the tiny monarchy of Qatar against its former allies and broken ties in the wider Middle East.

Qatar shares a massive offshore gas field with Iran and is reestablishing diplomatic relations with Tehran in the dispute, deepening the gap with the other countries.

On Monday, the Foreign Minister of Kuwait, Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah, announced that Saudi Arabia would reopen its airspace and the sea and land borders with Qatar – in the most public step to end the Doha boycott, which despite the US – Claims persists for a solution.

The breakthrough is the latest in a series of Middle East agreements that Washington sought to build a united front against Iran.

A victory is likely to be celebrated in the final days of President Donald Trump’s tenure. All states are American allies. Qatar is home to the region’s largest U.S. military base, while Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are home to U.S. troops.

“Today’s summit is very significant,” said Noha Aboueldahab, foreign affairs officer at the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank. However, she warned: “It will take a long time to build and regain trust.”

Aboueldahab told NBC News that Qatar and Saudi Arabia still had historical tensions and different foreign policy views that played out in arenas such as Syria, Libya and Egypt.

She also said the praise for Kushner’s mediation efforts was “ridiculous”. He and Trump are “just as responsible for ensuring that this blockade can take place as the blockade countries themselves”.

Diplomats and analysts say Saudi is also pushing for an end to the crisis to show President-elect Joe Biden that Riyadh is open to dialogue. Biden has vowed to draw a tougher line with the kingdom because of its human rights record and the ongoing war in Yemen.

The 2017 decision to break ties with Qatar put a massive strain on relations in the typically unified Arabian Gulf.

The four Arab countries gave a list of 13 demands for Qatar to be taken back into the fold. Among other things, calls to shut down the Al-Jazeera news agency, close a Turkish base and downgrade relations with Iran.

Qatar claimed the boycott was aimed at curbing its sovereignty and said any resolution must be based on mutual respect.

The affluent peninsular nation is beating over its weight on the world stage, which, according to some analysts, has thwarted Saudi Arabia’s traditional regional dominance. Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, facilitates Afghan peace talks and houses around 10,000 American troops at the country’s Al-Udeid Air Base.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Charlene Gubash and Josh Lederman contributed.

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