Losing Its Grip on Gulf, Saudi Arabia Is Desperate for Political Win

History, seemingly of minor significance, was made this week when the Saudi national soccer team landed in Doha, Qatar's capital, to participate in the Arabian Gulf Cup. A short while earlier, the Saudi envoy to Kuwait, Sultan bin Sa’ad al-Saud, declared that “sports might repair what politics has ruined.”

Truth be told, the match is not the most important event in this championship but rather the fact that Saudi Arabia, which since 2017 has imposed a boycott and a full blockade on Qatar, is taking part in the tournament. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain joined the boycott and closed their airspace to flights from and to Qatar, with Riyadh sealing shut Qatar’s only land crossing, cutting off a key route for food and construction imports as hostilities mounted. The Saudi team’s plane that landed this week in Qatar was the first to break the siege.

Two years ago Saudi Arabia presented Doha with a number of demands, the most important of which were that it severs ties with Iran and halt its meddling in the affairs of other countries, especially through infuriating activity of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera network and its broadcast criticism of the Gulf states and Egypt. Not only that Qatar refused to comply with these demands, it also impressively managed to overcome the economic blockade imposed on it with the help of Turkey and Iran and established a number of factories to produce goods that until then had been imported from abroad.

Though it did pay more for air transportation, with the financial cushion Qatar had accumulated over the years this had hardly any effect on the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens, who have the world’s highest per capita incomes. Much to the Saudis’ resentment, despite the tension between the two countries and Qatar’s close cooperation with Iran, Washington continued to maintain excellent relations with the small emirate in which the largest American airbase in the Persian Gulf is located.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts over the past two years to bring about reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar failed. However, it seems that it was precisely Trump's strategic decision to withdraw America from the Middle East that impelled Saudi Arabia toward appeasement with Qatar. The soccer tournament is not yet the renewal of diplomatic relations with Qatar but the Saudi Arabia's signal is clear.

When Iran downed a U.S. drone Trump refused to respond, explaining to the Saudis that the attack on its oil refinery facilities is their problem and not an American one and that he would love to help only if Riyadh pays for it. 

Meanwhile, when the circus of his “deal of the century” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, in which Saudi Arabia was supposed to play a leading role, has folded its tent, and when the American forces are intending to depart from Syria and leave it in Russian and Iranian hands, Saudi Arabia has to re-evaluate its strategy.