Qatar Emir Skips Riyadh Summit despite Thawing Ties
Qatar's emir skipped a Gulf summit in Riyadh on Tuesday that had been pilled as a potential "reconciliation conference" amid signs of a thaw between Doha and a Saudi-led bloc.
Despite the no-show, Saudi Arabia's King Salman and the Qatari prime minister exchanged smiles and pleasantries when the Doha delegation arrived in Riyadh.
"The people of Qatar, welcome, to your second country," said the commentator on Saudi state television, in warm words that could still bode well for regional diplomacy.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut all diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar in June 2017 over allegations it backs radical Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and seeks closer ties with Saudi arch rival Tehran.
Qatar vehemently denies the allegations.
The emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, sent Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani in his place to the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Hopes of reconciliation have been raised by indications of a detente between Qatar and its former allies despite Doha's refusal to heed demands put forward by the boycotting countries.
Following Saudi King Salman's invitation to the emir, Qatar's foreign minister said there had been "some progress" in talks with Riyadh.
In a U-turn last month, three of the boycotting countries sent teams to a regional football tournament hosted by Qatar, leading to speculation of an imminent diplomatic breakthrough.
Some Gulf watchers had anticipated that Tuesday's summit would blossom into a "reconciliation conference", leading to concrete steps to end the crisis.
But many Saudi observers remained skeptical, saying the king was only following protocol and had invited the Qatari leader to last year's summit as well.
- 'Incremental progress' -
The Qatari emir spurned that invitation and sent a representative instead, as he had to other summits since the crisis erupted in 2017.
Even though the emir will not attend the summit, negotiations to end the impasse are expected to continue, analysts say.
"Ending the Gulf rift is an incremental process of engagement and dialogue rather than something resolvable at a single summit meeting alone," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute in the United States.
The Riyadh-led bloc has repeatedly said the crisis will not end until Qatar accepts its list of 13 demands, including that it shut down Al Jazeera, downgrade ties with Iran and close a Turkish military base on its territory. Doha has so far refused.
"Saudi Arabia's normalization with Qatar is likely to occur without major concessions from Doha," said Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University.
"It is possible that Qatar could scale back its links with the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is certainly not planning on reducing its diplomatic ties with Turkey and Iran as trust between Doha and other GCC countries has been severely damaged."
Analysts say the spat has hurt the blockading countries more than Qatar.
Saudi Arabia now appears to be taking a more conciliatory approach after adopting a combative foreign policy under de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that has spooked investors.
But some of the other blockading countries are not as eager to step back.
Two sources familiar with the negotiations, including an Arab diplomat, told AFP that hardliners in Abu Dhabi -- Riyadh's principal ally -- are opposed to a restoration of ties.
Qatar's prime minister attended a series of talks in Saudi Arabia in May, one of the first high-level contacts of the two-year boycott.
But even before the Saudi-led blockade, relations had been rocky, in part because of Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera's critical coverage of the region's affairs and Doha's support for the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
The rift has seen the two sides trade barbs on everything from access to the Muslim holy city of Mecca to alleged Twitter hacking.
It has also seen families divided and Qatari businesses face increased costs as well as complicated regional travel and diplomacy.