Focused on ending Qatar row, Gulf leaders head to Saudi Arabia summit

AL-ULA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) -Gulf Arab leaders gather in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for a summit that is expected to see formal agreement towards ending a long-running dispute with Qatar that shattered Gulf unity at a time of heightened regional tensions with Iran.

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Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar in mid-2017 over allegations Doha supports terrorism, a charge it denies.

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is attending the summit in the historic city of al-Ula after an announcement that Saudi Arabia would reopen its airspace and sea and land border to Qatar, under a deal that a senior U.S. official said would be signed on Tuesday.

The breakthrough is the latest in a series of Middle East deals sought by Washington – the others involving Israel and Arab states – aimed at building a united front against Iran. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner is due to attend Tuesday’s ceremony.

While Riyadh made clear it intended to lift the embargo, the other three states did not immediately comment on the issue. But the U.S. official said “it’s our expectation” they would also join. Under the emerging deal, Qatar will suspend lawsuits related to the boycott, the official said.

Diplomats and analysts say Saudi Arabia was pushing for a deal to show U.S. President-elect Joe Biden that Riyadh is open to dialogue. Biden has vowed to take a harder line with the kingdom over its human rights record and the Yemen war.

“Despite the purported rapprochement between Gulf parties, it is worth noting that this is seemingly influenced by a desire to pre-empt pressure from an incoming Biden administration, more than a genuine commitment to conflict resolution,” said Emadeddin Badi, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“As such, the détente within the GCC is very unlikely to significantly affect geopolitical dynamics beyond the Gulf.”

The UAE and Egypt are at cross purposes with Qatar in Libya and over the Muslim Brotherhood.

All of the states are U.S. allies. Qatar hosts the region’s largest U.S. military base, Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE host U.S. troops.

Qatar, which says the boycott aims to curb its sovereignty, has said any resolution must be based on mutual respect.

The other countries had set Qatar 13 demands, ranging from closing Qatari-owned Al Jazeera TV and shuttering a Turkish base to cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood and downgrading ties with Iran.

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