Ending the Qatar blockade might be the price Saudi Arabia pays for Khashoggi's murder

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post contributor who disappeared after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, has created the biggest rift in U.S. relations with the kingdom since 9/11. Now, just one month after his death, and with his body still missing, his murder looks set to transform regional politics.

Washington has already sought to capitalize on the murder by pushing Riyadh to halt its disastrous 3 1/2-year intervention in Yemen and lift the Saudi-led embargo on Qatar, according to the multiple U.S. and diplomatic officials. This push comes just days before the Nov. 4 deadline, when sanctions on Iran lifted under the 2015 nuclear accord will be reimposed.

Qatar’s support will be critical for pressuring Iran, and resolving the crisis with Qatar would help refurbish the Saudi crown prince’s relations with his Western allies, which were tarnished by Khashoggi’s killing.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused of, but denies, ordering Khashoggi’s murder, has already given hints of a likely policy shift on the Qatar embargo. Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh in October, he praised his neighbor’s economy. “Qatar, despite the differences we have, has a great economy,” he said, “and they will be doing a lot in the next five years.”

There are several major factors pushing the Saudis toward a resolution of the Qatar blockade. First, the embargo is simply not working.

The blockade cut off land access to Qatar, since Saudi Arabia is the only country it shares a border with. Before the embargo, 80 percent of Qatar’s food imports were sourced via Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, the countries that imposed the embargo. Qatar needed a new route to feed its estimated 2.6 million residents.

Qatar has been able to bypass the siege in two ways. First is the sea line. Qatar is receiving shipments directly from countries not participating in the embargo to Hamad Port in Doha or Al Khor Port, a one-hour drive to Doha in the northern part of the country. They are also using land transportation to Bushehr, Iran, and then shipping the goods from the Port of Bushehr to Qatar via ferry.

A view of Hamad Port in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on June 14, 2017. (Photo: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of Hamad Port in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on June 14, 2017. (Photo: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s also a very expensive air route. Qatari businessmen have evaded the embargo — which also includes air travel restrictions — by going through Oman, which is not taking part in the blockade. “When we need to go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi for family or business purposes, we often use private jets,” one Qatari businessman told me earlier this year. “Since Emiratis do not give permission for a direct flight from an airport in UAE to Qatar, we declare Muscat as the final destination.”

Oman apparently looks the other way. “Until recently, we needed to wait in Muscat to get permission for a new destination to Doha,” he said. “But now, we don’t even stop. Once the wheels touch the runaway in Muscat, we take off immediately for Doha. This embargo is just a waste of time and money.”

Another reason for Saudi Arabia to end the blockade is that it has pushed Qatar closer to Iran, the exact opposite of what was intended. The blockade was, in fact, always about Iran. While the official line was the crisis was triggered by a story published in Al Jazeera, the Qatari-funded news network, the real reason was the approximately $1 billion ransom paid by Qatar to radical groups close to Iran to free members of a Qatar royal hunting party kidnapped in Iraq in December 2015 — the hostages were freed in April 2017, a month before the start of embargo.

Yet Iran became the lifeline of Qatar. Tehran opened the Bushehr line in September 2017, and in November, Iran, Turkey and Qatar signed a trilateral agreement aimed at boosting trade amid the Saudi-led blockade. And when the land route from Turkey to Qatar via Iran became operational, Iran’s exports to Qatar reached $248 million a year, marking 140 percent growth. With the critical Nov. 4 deadline targeting Iran, ending the Qatar embargo would become a key factor in limiting Iran’s ties with its neighboring countries.

The Saudis also hoped that the embargo would weaken Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the current emir of Qatar, and even prompt a coup against him, similar to the one that ousted his grandfather in 1995. Instead al-Thani consolidated his power. Images of him can be found everywhere in Qatar, from a façade of a skyscraper to car windshields.

Finally, the Khashoggi murder has led to new pressure on Riyadh. As Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador, pointed out, “Although the administration has elevated the relationship with Saudi Arabia since it came in, it has made it a relationship between families.”

That now appears set to change. “We need to have a relationship that is institutionalized and based on the state institutions,” Edelman said.

Despite President Trump’s tweets supporting the embargo against Qatar, the U.S. bureaucracy opposed the siege and has consistently urged the Saudis to ease the tension with Qatar. After Khashoggi’s murder, the U.S. government now has more leverage to use against the Saudis. After all, lifting the embargo on Qatar would be the easiest way for Riyadh to show the world it has compromised and stepped backed on a major foreign policy issue.

The crown prince’s recent positive remarks about the Qatar economy are just the first step. Next would be to revisit the list of demands issued by the Saudi-led bloc after imposing the embargo, which included a demand that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera. While Qatar might agree on some of the conditions, such as scaling back ties with Iran, and severing ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi-led camp would likely compromise on Al Jazeera. Riyadh would also likely step back from its earlier demand that Turkey’s military base in Qatar be closed — a payment to the Turks for Khashoggi’s murder in their country.

Where does that leave Yemen? Despite the humanitarian catastrophe there, a famine affecting 14 million people, and public remarks by high-level U.S. officials urging a cease-fire, Riyadh has given no indication it will back down. That means when it comes to Saudi political concessions for the murder of Khashoggi, the only country with little to gain is Yemen.


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