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Saudi Arabia To Reopen Borders With Qatar

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. has helped broker a deal between two important but feuding allies - Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser, was on hand for a signing ceremony in the Saudi kingdom. It marked the end to a three-year rift that threatened to undermine U.S. strategy in the Gulf region. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There were warm hugs and handshakes, all while wearing masks, as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greeted Qatar's Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani ahead of today's signing. The scene belied the deep animosity between the two countries since mid-2017, when Saudi Arabia announced a diplomatic trade and travel blockade against its tiny, rich neighbor.

Frederic Wehrey is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

FREDERIC WEHREY: The Saudis wanted to bring Qatar to its knees.

NORTHAM: The Saudis made at least a dozen demands of Qatar.

WEHREY: And none of them, to my knowledge, were, you know, fulfilled.

NORTHAM: Firas Maksad with George Washington University's Elliott School for International Affairs says the Saudi crown prince realized it was time to move on, especially with an incoming Biden administration that has promised to get tough with Saudi Arabia.

FIRAS MAKSAD: I think for Saudi Arabia, clearly, this is part and parcel of turning the page. They are setting the table, so to speak, for better relations with the incoming Biden administration.

NORTHAM: But it was the Trump administration that's been pushing to resolve the spat. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are allies, and the U.S. has a large military base in Qatar. The administration also wants to create a bulwark against Iran. Carnegie's Wehrey doesn't buy it.

WEHREY: To say that the Gulf is going to be united against Iran, that there's going to be this impenetrable Gulf Sunni bloc now against Iran because suddenly Qatar has been brought into the fold is just pure fantasy. I mean, the Gulf has always been disunited in terms of its outreach and policies toward Iran.

NORTHAM: And many of the issues that started the feud are still there. Qatar still has relations with Iran. Maksad with the Elliott School says it's not a sure thing today's deal will stick.

MAKSAD: The reporting is that the deal almost fell apart on Sunday, and the U.S. had to - and Jared Kushner personally - had to intervene and work the phone lines. I think it's a testimony to how fragile that is.

NORTHAM: Even if tenuous, Maksad says the deal is a step in the right direction and will be welcomed in D.C.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.