RIYADH (Dispatches) -- Qatar’s emir skipped a Persian Gulf summit in Riyadh on Tuesday that had been billed as a potential "reconciliation conference” amid claims of a thaw between Doha and a Saudi-led bloc.
The GCC is a bloc composed of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The bloc has been fractured by a two-year boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt over a political dispute.
They cut all diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar in June 2017 over allegations it backs the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks closer ties with Tehran. Qatar vehemently denies the allegations.
The emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, sent Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani in his place to the annual summit of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Doha has refused to heed demands put forward by the boycotting countries. Following Saudi King Salman’s invitation to the emir, Qatar’s foreign minister said there had been "some progress” in talks with Riyadh.
In a U-turn last month, three of the boycotting countries sent teams to a regional football tournament hosted by Qatar, leading to speculation of an imminent diplomatic breakthrough.
Some Persian Gulf watchers had anticipated that Tuesday’s summit would blossom into a "reconciliation conference”, leading to concrete steps to end the crisis.
But many Saudi observers remained skeptical, saying the king was only following protocol and had invited the Qatari leader to last year’s summit as well.
The Qatari emir spurned that invitation and sent a representative instead, as he had to other summits since the crisis erupted in 2017.
The Riyadh-led bloc has repeatedly said the crisis will not end until Qatar accepts its list of 13 demands, including that it shut down Al Jazeera, downgrade ties with Iran and close a Turkish military base on its territory. Doha has so far refused.
"Saudi Arabia’s normalization with Qatar is likely to occur without major concessions from Doha,” said Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University.
"It is possible that Qatar could scale back its links with the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is certainly not planning on reducing its diplomatic ties with Turkey and Iran as trust between Doha and other GCC countries has been severely damaged.”
Analysts say the spat has hurt the blockading countries more than Qatar.
Saudi Arabia now appears to be taking a more conciliatory approach after adopting a combative foreign policy under de facto leader Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman that has spooked investors.
But some of the other blockading countries are not as eager to step back.
Two sources familiar with the negotiations, including an Arab diplomat, told AFP that hardliners in Abu Dhabi -- Riyadh’s principal ally -- are opposed to a restoration of ties.
Qatar’s prime minister attended a series of talks in Saudi Arabia in May, one of the first high-level contacts of the two-year boycott.
But even before the Saudi-led blockade, relations had been rocky, in part because of Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera’s critical coverage of the region’s affairs and Doha’s support for the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
The rift has seen the two sides trade barbs on everything from access to the Muslim holy city of Mecca to alleged Twitter hacking.
It has also seen families divided and Qatari businesses face increased costs as well as complicated regional travel and diplomacy.
Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which has shattered the GCC alliance and undermined Washington’s efforts to form a united front against Iran.
King Salman opened the GCC summit on Tuesday by calling for regional unity to confront Iran and secure energy supplies and maritime channels.
"Our region today is passing through circumstances and challenges that require concerted efforts to confront them as the Iranian government continues its aggressive actions that threaten security and stability…,” he said.
In a televised speech, he also urged the global community to address Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The incendiary remarks came a day after Saudi Arabia and Iran signed an agreement regarding arrangements for the next Hajj season.
The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported that the Minister of Hajj and Umrah Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten held a meeting in Mecca with the head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, Ali Reza Rashidian, to discuss arrangements and preparations for the service of Iranian pilgrims.
During the meeting, Benten expressed his thanks and appreciation to the Iranian pilgrims for their cooperation during last year’s Hajj season.
The official Iranian news agency IRNA reported on Monday that the agreement was signed in Mecca after talks between the two sides.
After the meeting, Rashidian said the negotiations "focused on preserving the dignity, security and safety of Iranian pilgrims”.
"The talks also discussed Saudi Arabia’s provision of greater facilities to Iranian airlines to transport pilgrims,” explained Rashidian.