There were several indications that Egypt and Qatar were attempting a rapprochement during the Arab League Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh this weekend. Signs indicate that the two nations may be willing to put aside the significant political differences that have precipitated a precarious fault line between them since 2013.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi went to meet the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the airport ahead of the Arab League conference, an event that was widely reported in local media.
A diplomatic source told the privately owned newspaper Al-Shorouk that in their meeting on Saturday, Qatar promised not to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs, while Cairo promised to give Doha a second chance to prove its good intentions.
Then on Sunday, the news source Russia Today Arabic reported that the Qatari ambassador to Egypt would return to Cairo. He was withdrawn in February during a diplomatic tiff over an Egyptian official’s accusation that Qatar was aiding terrorists.
The diplomatic thaw seems to have begun as early as February, when local newspapers reported that Sisi apologized to Thani for anti-Qatar sentiments expressed in several local media outlets.
Egypt-Qatari relations went sour after former President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power in July 2013. Since then, Egypt imprisoned three journalists working for the Doha-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera and shut down its Egypt operations, while Qatar has continued to welcome prominent Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing the Egyptian regime’s crackdown on the group, which was declared an illegal terrorist organization at the end of 2013.
Qatar’s feud with Egypt and, at some points, the broader Gulf region was exacerbated by the small country’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, mostly in Egypt and Syria. Qatar acted in defiance of the policies held by the other Gulf States, which see the group as a threat to their Islamist supremacy in the region. Last year, Qatar went so far as to send its foreign minister to Iran, the prime rival of Saudi Arabia.
Egypt’s reconciliation with Qatar has been shepherded by Saudi Arabia, arguably motivated by that country’s need to consolidate a Sunni bloc to stand against the growing Iranian threat.
Late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz began the process of reconciliation in November 2014, when he called on Egypt and Qatar to bury the hatchet in the wake of the Kuwait-brokered Riyadh agreement signed between Qatar and other Gulf countries. Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia all reinstated their withdrawn ambassadors back to Doha after the agreement was signed.
Omar al-Hassan, the head of the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies (GCSS), thinks that “Saudi Arabia started to normalize the relationship between Qatar and Egypt. King Abdallah started the mediation between the two countries, and he really succeeded. Now King Salman is continuing this, and I think he is doing very well after he convinced both countries to meet and ally forces in Yemen.”
The Arab League summit was largely concerned with Arab intervention in Yemen, as the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm was launched against Houthi insurgents there only days earlier.
David Wearing, a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a researcher on UK-Saudi-Gulf relations, believes that the Egypt-Qatar reconciliation has largely been driven by Saudi foreign policy, which currently prioritizes blockading Iran from regional politics.
“I suspect these changes are attributable to the Brotherhood being in a considerably weaker position today than they were two years ago, and the fact that the Saudis’ overwhelming priority and concern now is clearly Iran,” says Wearing. “The Saudis have assembled a strikingly broad coalition with regard to Yemen, including Qatar and Turkey, and this probably reflects a desire to make the anti-Iran bloc as wide and strong as possible.”
The Gulf nations’ shared opposition to Iran seems to be trumping concerns over Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Even though Qatar continues to play host to many prominent Muslim Brotherhood members, Hassan doesn’t think that will affect Qatar’s relationship with Egypt or with its Gulf allies in the current climate.
Qatar’s foreign policy is independent of its decision to host Muslim Brotherhood members, according to Hassan.
“It’s up to them to accommodate anyone they want on their land,” he says. “The Saudis, for example, have the former president of Tunisia. As long as the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t embarrass the Qatari government, then I think there should be no problem.”
Egypt likely “understands the situation,” Hassan continues, and thus Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood will likely no longer pose a problem.
However, some analysts are less optimistic about the future of Egypt-Qatar relations. Elsayed Ameen Shalaby, the executive director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, thinks that while Egypt’s will is to reconcile with Qatar, the majority of the tensions between the two countries are due to Qatar’s actions.
“If Qatar indeed wants reconciliation, it should change its policies toward Egypt, especially disseminating anti-Egypt propaganda through Al-Jazeera,” he argues. “If Qatar changed its attitude toward Egypt from hostile to friendly, then Egypt is open for reconciliation.”