Qatar Set to End Feud With Saudi Arabia

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Qatar Set to End Feud With Saudi Arabia

Qatar, whose capital is Doha, will be permitted by Saudi Arabia to resume flights over the kingdom’s air space

Photo: giuseppe cacace/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies are expected to sign a deal on Tuesday designed to end a protracted feud that has split the Middle East and hampered U.S. efforts to isolate Iran, senior Trump administration officials said on Monday.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who helped broker an end to the standoff over the past few weeks, flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday to attend the signing after getting a rare invitation to the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia, where leaders are expected to take the first major steps in ending the dispute.

Under the deal, the U.S. officials said, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt are expected to officially end a blockade of Qatar they began in June 2017 when the countries accused Qatar’s leaders of supporting terrorism and aligning itself with Iran.

“This is the biggest breakthrough we’ve had to date,” said one senior Trump administration official. “It doesn’t mean they will love each other and be best friends, but it does mean they will be able to work together.”

On Monday, Kuwait, which has served as a mediator in the dispute, announced that Saudi Arabia would officially reopen its airspace to Qatari planes for the first time since 2017.

U.S. and Saudi officials said they had secured a compromise that will allow Qatar to again fly planes over the Gulf nation in exchange for Qatar Airways dropping a series of legal challenges against the four nations that sought $5 billion in compensation for the airspace bans.

But the deal won’t address the underlying divisions that led to the dispute, leading some Gulf officials to suggest that it would only paper over problems set to quickly arise again.

“This is the biggest breakthrough we’ve had to date.”

— A senior Trump administration official

One major sticking point is the ongoing media war among the nations, where state-backed news outlets routinely target their rivals with negative coverage.

“Is it perfect? No,” said a second senior Trump administration official. “Ultimately, I think what this shows is that the parties have more to gain from ending this now than from letting it go on beyond the Trump administration.”

At first, Mr. Trump enthusiastically supported the Middle East nation’s severing of ties with Qatar, even though Qatar is home to the largest American military base in the region, used to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State forces in the Middle East and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia and its allies issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar, including shutting down the state-backed Al Jazeera satellite news network, severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and cutting off its military cooperation with Iran. Qatar rejected the accusations and managed to mitigate the damage caused by the dispute.

The Trump administration quickly reversed course and sought unsuccessfully for years to broker an end to the dispute. Over the past year, negotiations focused mainly on resolving the fight over airspace.

To evade the ban on flying over Saudi Arabia, Qatar rerouted some planes over Iran, providing Tehran with a new source of funds for use of its airspace while the U.S. was working to choke off money flowing to the government. Mr. Trump pressed Saudi Arabia to cede ground on the issue, but Riyadh was reluctant to give up its main pressure point with Qatar.

The feud was stoked by critical media coverage that incensed leaders in the rival capitals. In the fall of 2019, Qatar’s foreign minister secretly flew to Riyadh to offer a new deal to end the dispute. Qatar agreed to constrain coverage by Al Jazeera, according to Gulf officials, but the network continued to run programming that infuriated leaders in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.

Late last year, Gulf leaders reached out to Mr. Kushner and asked him to help, according to U.S. officials. Mr. Kushner had developed close ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And he had business ties in Qatar, where the Kushner family unsuccessfully tried to secure critical funding to bail out a financially troubled Manhattan real-estate project.

U.S. officials said Saudi Arabia had a new incentive to end the dispute: the imminent start of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. Mr. Biden has vowed to take a tougher approach to Saudi Arabia than Mr. Trump, who stood by Saudi leaders when they were accused of jailing human-rights activists and killing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While Mr. Kushner was working to end the dispute last month, the Trump administration approved the sale of more than $760 million in arms to Saudi Arabia and more than $100 million to Egypt. Those countries had pushed back against the U.S.-brokered deal.

U.S. officials said the arms sales weren’t related to the deal to be signed on Tuesday.

Qatar has its own incentives to strike a deal to end the airspace restrictions: the tiny Gulf nation is preparing to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.

President Trump offered to personally serve as a mediator between Qatar and other Arab countries in September 2017, amplifying his administration’s effort to resolve the dispute. Photo: AP (Originally published Sept. 7, 2017)

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

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