Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies agreed on Tuesday to restore diplomatic relations with Qatar and restart flights to and from the country, ending a three-year boycott of the tiny gas-rich nation.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in mid-2017 after accusing the country of supporting terrorism. Qatar has repeatedly denied the accusations.
The boycotting countries, known as the Arab quartet, also cited political differences with Qatar over Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha, unlike its Gulf neighbors, has friendly relations with Tehran, supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and has hosted groups affiliated with the Islamist group.
Qatar’s only land border – which it shares with Saudi Arabia – was sealed shut. Boycotting countries closed their airspace to Qatar, and nearby Bahrain and the UAE closed their maritime borders to ships carrying the Qatari flag.
“Whether it’s the returning of diplomatic relations, flights … all of that will go back to normal,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal told a news conference, announcing a declaration between the nations had been signed.
The signing took place during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in the Saudi city of al-Ula, where Qatar’s leader Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Thani met former regional foes.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received Sheikh Tamim, who set foot on Saudi soil for the first time since the start of the crisis, on the airport tarmac. The two leaders hugged, and images of the warm welcome were widely shared on regional social media.
Sheik Tamim described the agreement in a tweet as a “defining moment.”
“I thank the brothers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the generous welcome and I thank the brotherly State of Kuwait for its valued efforts,” he wrote.
UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said he was optimistic the agreement would be implemented quickly, but he was more cautionary about future relations with Qatar.
“Of course, you always know that following a rift such as the one that we have had, the issue of rebuilding confidence is one that takes time, takes some energy and takes a lot of transparency,” he told CNN’s Connect the World.
Few concrete details have been given of what the agreement actually entails, nor were there any insights into the role of Iran in the leaders’ talks.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif congratulated Qatar in a tweet “for the success of its brave resistance to pressure & extortion” following the declaration.
During the signing of the statement, the Saudi Crown Prince called on Arab states to join ranks to counter the kingdom’s regional archrival, Iran.
“Today, we are in dire need to unite our efforts to advance our region and face the challenges that surround us,” said bin Salman. “Especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile program, and its destructive sabotage projects that are adopted by (Iran’s) terrorist and sectarian proxies and their activities that are aimed at destabilizing security and stability in the region.”
Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who is credited with helping to usher in the detente, was in the room where the agreement was being signed.
‘A bright new page’
Ahead of the summit, Kuwait’s foreign minister announced Monday that Saudi Arabia would reopen its airspace and borders to Qatar. Kuwait, which has mediated the crisis since it began, said the final agreement was the result of a call between Kuwaiti Emir Nawaf al Ahmad al Sabah, the Qatari Emir and the Saudi Crown Prince.
Bin Salman was elevated from Deputy Crown Prince to Crown Prince a month after the start of the dispute, and is widely seen as an architect of the Qatar boycott. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who is not attending the GCC summit, was also seen as a driving force behind the bid to isolate Doha.
The embargo came at a time of heightened tensions with Iran, and fractured Gulf Arab unity. The quartet presented 13 sweeping demands, including the closure of Doha’s pan-Arab TV station Al Jazeera, ending Turkey’s military presence in Qatar, and curbing diplomatic ties with Iran.
As the dispute apparently nears an end, it is unclear if any of the initial preconditions to end the spat have been met. Al Jazeera continues to broadcast, and Doha’s relations with Tehran and Ankara appear intact. The details in the statement signed Tuesday were not released.
The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said Tuesday’s summit marked the beginning of “a bright new page.”
Saudi Arabia first signaled that a breakthrough on the Qatar crisis was afoot last month. Regional pundits say that Riyadh may be expediting a resolution in order to improve its standing with the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden.
Saudi Arabia has has strong relations with the Trump White House, which empowered their bid to contain Iran. But a Biden presidency may put them in uncharted waters. As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and has vowed to end Washington’s “blank check” to the kingdom.
CNN’s Hande Atay Alam and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.