Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman in first Qatar visit since blockade ended

Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman in first Qatar visit since blockade ended
Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de facto ruler, is visiting Qatar as the third of six stops on a Gulf tour.
3 min read
09 December, 2021
MbS' Qatar visit is the third of six Gulf tour stops [Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Handout/Anadolu/Getty-archive]

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in Qatar on Thursday for the first time since the kingdom rallied other Arab states to end their years-long rift with and embargo on the small Gulf state.

De facto Saudi ruler bin Salman's visit to Qatar marks his third stop in the region this week as the Saudi heir to the throne tours the six US-allied Gulf Arab states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). His meetings with Arab rulers are aimed at fortifying the kingdom’s alliances as rival Iran resumes nuclear negotiations with world powers.

His visit to Qatar is particularly significant because at this time last year the neighboring states were in the midst of a diplomatic standoff that had frayed familial ties in the region, fractured the close-knit GCC and sparked churlish bars in state-linked media as accusations of hacking and damaging leaks swirled.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties and launched a blockade on Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of links to Islamist groups and being too close to Iran, allegations Doha strongly denies. The four other Middle Eastern countries sealed their airspace to Qatari flights, shuttered Qatar's only land border and expelled Qatari citizens.

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The regional standoff concluded earlier this year with an agreement signed by Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, Qatar did not give in to a list of demands the quartet had made, including that it close its Al Jazeera news channel.

Rather, Qatar has emerged a powerful mediator in the region. As host to the Middle East's largest US airbase, Qatar played an outsized role during the US-led evacuation from Afghanistan over the summer and has played a key role in facilitating international contact with the country's Taliban rulers following the closure of Western embassies there.

Qatar is also well positioned to play a role in easing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Prince Mohammed's visit to Doha comes just days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Qatar for meetings. Relations between Riyadh and Ankara have been rocky since the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Upon his arrival to Qatar late on Wednesday, Prince Mohammed was greeted on the tarmac with an embrace from ruling Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

He arrived to Qatar from the United Arab Emirates, where he shook hands with Abu Dhabi's crown prince and strongman before their meeting. The formality of their greeting — in contrast to the embrace he received in Qatar after stepping off the plane — and the decision to make the UAE his second stop in the tour after visiting Oman spotlights the underlying tensions that have emerged in the Saudi-UAE relationship.

Despite a lengthy joint statement expressing their commitment to economic prosperity and security at the conclusion of the prince's visit in the UAE, the traditional allies have increasingly divergent foreign policy stances and are in a heated competition for foreign investment and regional clout.

The Saudi crown prince is slated to conclude his tour with stops in Bahrain and Kuwait.