The Emirati president, the main promoter of the 2017 boycott of Doha, is pushing for a thaw in relations with his Gulf neighbour in the run-up to the World Cup

Mohammed bin Zayed visits Qatar for first time since blockade

PHOTO/@MohamedBinZayed - Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani welcomes UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed at Doha's international airport

Mohammed bin Zayed is in Qatar. The president of the United Arab Emirates surprised everyone when he landed on Monday morning at Doha's Hamad International Airport, a luxury infrastructure expanded as part of the reforms put in place by the small Gulf country to host the World Cup. No one was expecting his arrival, except for Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who was waiting in the terminal to be photographed with the Emirati ruler and send a message of rapprochement in the midst of a thaw in their troubled bilateral relations. 

"The visit is based on the bonds of brotherhood that unite the two countries and their peoples," the state news agency WAM reported. According to the official Emirati media, the leaders are using the occasion to discuss "bilateral ties and ways to enhance cooperation between the two Gulf states". But the visit of Mohammed bin Zayed, aka MBZ, is far more important than the brief note published by WAM reflects

It is the Emirati president's first official visit to Doha since before 2017, when the Emirates imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Qatar alongside Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain. The tiny Gulf country was completely encircled. The four regional allies, led by Abu Dhabi, then decided to sever ties with Doha, which they accused of backing the Turkish and Iranian regimes and, above all, of promoting the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda in the Middle East.

Mohamed bin Zayed Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani

The UAE, in line with its partners, considered - and considers - the promotion of political Islamism that Qatar has been carrying out since the outbreak of the Arab Spring through its religious, political, economic and media terminals to be detrimental. From Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Cairo, especially after the rise to power of former Defence Minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Doha's roadmap was perceived as a threat to the stability of their political systems. However, the new regional geopolitical context invites a reconfiguration of the Gulf states' external action

The harsh scenario in Afghanistan, the gradual withdrawal of the United States from the region, the endless war in Yemen, the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the controversial World Cup in Qatar have given way to a new phase in Middle East diplomacy. The blockade on Qatar, amortised in January 2021 after the Al-Ula summit, is now a thing of the past. On the horizon now is the challenge of normalising relations between Abu Dhabi and Doha. 

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have already broken down the door with their respective approaches to Qatar. Both decided to reinstate their diplomatic representatives in Doha and restart economic cooperation. The UAE, like Bahrain, has yet to appoint an ambassador to Qatar, despite having taken steps forward, such as restoring air links. Indeed, while there was a timid rapprochement with Qatar after Al-Ula, relations remain strained. 

Statements by top Emirati diplomatic adviser Anwar Gargash, who declared that the dispute with Qatar had finished in December 2021, and repeated official trips to Doha by Emirati national security adviser Tahnoon bin Zayed, brother of the current president, to discuss sensitive issues, seem to have been of no use. The Emir of Qatar's praise of the late Emirati President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan, who was succeeded in May by Mohammed bin Zayed, and the meeting between Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and MBZ at the Beijing Winter Olympics two months earlier, also fell on deaf ears.

Mohamed bin Zayed Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani

The fact that the UAE was the main promoter of the blockade on Qatar at the regional level has been hindering rapprochement with the Qatari leadership, aware that the siege would have continued had it not been for Saudi Arabia, whose diplomatic pressure eased as the blockade no longer served its interests. Without Riyadh in the game, the crusade against Doha would no longer make sense. During the rupture, however, the flow of gas through the Dolphin pipeline, which connects Qatar's reserves with the Emirates and Oman, was not affected. Hydrocarbons continued to flow. 

MBZ intends to use the occasion to heal wounds. "Reconciliation with Qatar after the historic January 2021 summit is an example of the shifts towards greater pragmatism in Abu Dhabi's foreign policy agenda," writes analyst Giorgio Cafiero in Manara magazine. "As part of efforts to reduce tensions with its competitors, rivals and adversaries, the Emirates has sought to contain and manage the frictions that have arisen between Abu Dhabi and Doha since the 1990s, especially in the post-2011 period." 

For Cafiero, the problems between Qatar and the UAE "were ideological in nature, while the tensions between Doha and Riyadh were more strategic"

The World Cup in Qatar, the catalyst 

Football also conditions the game board. In an image that went around the world, the newly appointed Saudi Prime Minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, knotted his Qatari-coloured scarf around his neck during the opening ceremony of the football World Cup in Doha as he clasped the hands of Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The Qatari ruler returned the nod when he waved a Saudi Arabian flag during the match in which the Saudis upset Leo Messi's Argentina by 2 goals to 1.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi also attended the opening even though his national team is not even playing in the tournament. He sat in a packed VIP box, with Vice-President Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Emir of Dubai's emir, who is more in charge of domestic affairs, representing the Emirates. In contrast to the attendees from other countries in the region, Abu Dhabi tried to keep a low profile during the ceremony. 

The UAE is benefiting economically from the World Cup. Hundreds of fans are staying in the main tourist areas of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, taking advantage, in part, of the ease of travel from these locations to Doha, something that would be impossible if the blockade were to continue. Mohammed bin Zayed is aware of all this, which is why the Emirati president is committed to relaunching relations in this context.