Positive developments have been witnessed between Doha and Abu Dhabi, however, ties remain heavily burdened with competitiveness below the surface, analysts told Doha News amid an ongoing period of rapprochement.
“Post Al Ula, there is this direct strategic engagement. There are a range of different photo ops… but below the surface the two remain competitors,” Dr Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London told Doha News.
In a phone call last week, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and United Arab Emirates’ President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, or MbZ, discussed the prospects of consolidating “fraternal relations” between the two countries, according to a statement.
The two also met during a surprise visit made by MbZ during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, marking the first such trip since Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies lifted their blockade on Doha almost two years ago. The visit was also the first for bin Zayed since he became president in May.
The state-run Qatar News Agency said Sheikh Tamim met “his brother” MbZ on arrival at the country’s Hamad International Airport, in a clear show of rapprochement after years of tensions.
The trip signified “another step towards strengthening Gulf solidarity and joint action,” Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, wrote on Twitter at the time.
In a new region post Al Ula, some nations of the GCC have continued to develop relations with Doha, though some quicker than others.
In contrast to Bahrain and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have already restored diplomatic connections with Doha.
The quartet lifted an illegal air, land and sea embargo on Qatar early last year with the signing of the Al Ula Declaration to restore diplomatic and trade ties.
Egypt’s President Abdelfattah El Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman both attended the opening FIFA World Cup 2022 ceremony on 20 November in Qatar.
However, the UAE sent Vice President Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also serves as ruler of Dubai.
“Certainly there’s been some progress made since Al Ula. It’s a very, very slow rapprochement,” Dr Krieg said, adding that “the fact that Mohamed bin Zayed didn’t attend the opening of the FIFA World Cup showed that things are not back to where they once were under Sheikh Zayed.”
As much as Qatar has faced years worth of scrutiny and anti-Qatar campaigns, it also received well-deserved praise for its successful hosting of the FIFA World Cup from the media, various leaders and officials, as well as fans from all around the world.
Speaking about MbZ’s surprise visit to the Gulf country during the tournament, Dr Krieg told Doha News: “I think it was a courtesy visit for the most part, Mohamed bin Zayed realised that this was a Gulf moment.”
Soaking up the benefits from the Middle East’s first ever World Cup, the UAE “were very eager to ensure that they were represented,” as “the World Cup was a very important Gulf moment, and the UAE didn’t really represent itself during that Gulf moment,” the expert noted.
Dr Krieg said the visit “didn’t last very long. It wasn’t as strategic as it could be,” noting it was more of a ‘courtesy’.
Addressing some of the minor progress made between the two side, Krieg told Doha News that Qatar and the UAE have tapped into some portfolios that have allowed the two to engage positively, particularly in Afghanistan.
Despite the progress, the analyst pointed to floating discrepancies still marring the bilateral relations: “but on other portfolios, the conversations between Qatar and the UAE are probably still very indirect.”
“So when it comes to Libya, for example, the Qataris are engaging with the Egyptians and the Turks. The Emiratis engaging directly with the Turks, not directly with the country.”
However, while the UAE was seen as the biggest benefiter of the World Cup in Qatar, with hundreds of thousands of fans opting to stay in Dubai between matches a two-hour flight away, the analyst claimed this didn’t deter it from taking part in campaigns to attack Doha.
Due to the tournament, fans flooded the UAE, particularly Dubai, causing an unparalleled boom in tourism. The neighbouring emirate had also designated fan zones at parks, beaches, and the financial district in preparation for the rush.
At the time, Dr Krieg told Doha News, Dubai is probably the greatest “free loader” from this year’s World Cup.
“Dubai is probably the single most greatest benefactor from this World Cup,” he said.
“The UAE obviously benefited largely from this World Cup,” Dr Krieg told Doha News, adding that “the positivity, the narratives, the discourse on the Gulf, which was largely, at least outside of Europe, was fairly positive, reflected, also very positively on the UAE.”
“Abu Dhabi needed to ensure that they were part of this positive development and this positive experience in many ways.”
However, Dr Krieg said “in the run up to the World Cup, there were lots of information campaigns that were ripened by the UAE.”
With just to kick off, Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup was a constant target of multiple smear campaigns, with comments by prominent Emirati figures posing questions on whether the UAE was backing such campaigns.
Two weeks ahead of the opening, Hamad Al Mazrouei wrote in a tweet: “15 days separate us from failure and inexperience,” while referring to the days leading up to the Middle East’s first ever FIFA World Cup.
Addressing the campaigns, Dr Krieg told Doha News that a “lot of leaks, a lot of pushing of narratives against Qatar were facilitated and supported by UAE networks in Europe, particularly in the UK.
“The UAE, when it comes to information operations, they are a very, very powerful, if not the most powerful Arab country and they’re using their information power against competitors, against, adversaries.
“And it’s sometimes even against friends,” Dr Kried told Doha News.
Summing up the recent relation progression in a post Al-Ula region, Dr Krieg said “these tiny steps don’t necessarily do away with the controversy and the competition in the information space between the UAE and Qatar.”