Bridging the Gulf: Five things to know about the Saudi summit

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Al-Ula (Saudi Arabia) (AFP)

After a three-year diplomatic row that turned from icy to furious, Gulf leaders met in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to try to resolve their differences.

The oil-rich countries signed a “solidarity” deal that gave rise to dizzying times, despite lingering concerns that they may have simply covered up their disagreements.

Here are five things to know about the summit:

– (Don’t) hold back –

The landing of Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in Saudi Arabia after more than three years of estrangement from his nearest neighbor was a watershed moment.

As he stepped off his personal plane, Saudi Arabia’s de facto Crown Prince, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, walked up the stairs, stopping a safe distance from the coronavirus on the tarmac at the Al-Ula airport.

Sheikh Tamim, who was wearing his oversized sunglasses, touched his right hand to his heart as he walked down the steps.

But on the pitch, the pair hesitated before Prince Mohammed hugged himself, while a sword-armed honor guard kept watch.

– Opening –

The stage was set for a lightning-fast rapprochement when Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah announced on Monday that Saudi Arabia would immediately open up airspace, borders and waterways to Qatar.

Shortly after the bombshell was announced, drivers from Doha on the usually quiet Salwa highway heading for the Saudi border at Abu Samra sounded their horns and waved their arms from their car windows in celebration.

– Hall of Mirrors –

The summit served as a dramatic showcase for one of Saudi Arabia’s treasures, the desert city of Al-Ula, a wonder largely invisible to outsiders, dotted with pre-Islamic ruins amid its mountains and wadis.

The leaders were taken to the place of the top, a giant mirror-covered cube that reflects its awe-inspiring surroundings, looking more like a James Bond villain’s lair than the cultural place it is.

Al-Ula was off-limits to most travelers until Saudi Arabia opened up to tourism in late 2019, only to close again months later during the coronavirus pandemic.

The region is home to the kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Madain Saleh, built over 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, who also built the Petra complex, better known in Jordan.

The choice of location has been carefully calculated – tourism is one of the gems of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision to rebuild the kingdom’s economy and reduce its dependence on oil.

– What they said… and what they didn’t do –

The United Arab Emirates, one of the blockaded countries, was seen as a reluctant participant in the reconciliation process.

However, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash turned poetic after the signing.

“From the Hall of Mirrors of Al-Ula, begins a new bright page,” he tweeted.

Saudi commentators appeared on Doha-based Al Jazeera TV channel for the first time in years, and a major Saudi media group removed the song “Teach Qatar” – which details its supposed failures – from its YouTube channel.

“It’s funny to see so many analysts and journalists trying to pour cold water on this important development,” author and commentator Ali Shihabi tweeted.

“Understandable since the fundraising train for many of them will likely end. A whole industry had emerged to take advantage of this split and it will dry up. ”

– Weekend? –

While travel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is now possible on at least paper, the coronavirus pandemic will complicate any travel or trade between the two.

Qatar currently requires all arrivals to have pre-authorization before leaving, the process taking months in some cases, and all new arrivals are subject to strict quarantine measures.

Saudi Arabia also imposes its own rules on international arrivals.

Qatari hoteliers in a hurry hope travel can resume unhindered as the hotel industry, which once relied on well-heeled Saudis taking vacations and long weekends at the border, seeks to weather the coronavirus slowdown.

The other boycott countries, which include the popular destinations of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have not announced whether they will reopen their doors to Qataris or allow their citizens to visit Qatar.

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