A bitter political rupture in the Gulf region, which has led Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to impose an air, land and sea blockade against Qatar for three and a half years, seems to affect its end. A diplomatic breakthrough in early January led to the signing of a declaration at the much-anticipated GCC summit in the Saudi city of Al-Ula, restoring relations between the Gulf states and lifting the blockade.
As Qatar and the blockade quartet turn the page and move forward, the Gulf region must unbox, remedy and recognize the social and political damage caused by the Gulf crisis. The cracks in the social fabric of the Gulf can neither be reversed, nor so easily forgotten.
The blockade severely affected the people of the Gulf region, whose close cross-border tribal and family ties were abruptly severed. Social trust in once tight-knit Gulf communities has collapsed. Insults were exchanged and vicious disinformation campaigns pitted Qatar and other Gulf communities against each other. Coupled with the sudden closure of Qatar’s borders and airspace, the GCC crisis sent shockwaves across the entire Qatari population, triggering a deep sense of betrayal from their Gulf neighbors.
If the Gulf region evolves and reconciliation is limited to reopening borders and restoring diplomatic relations, trust between Qatar and its neighbors will remain tenuous and resentment will continue to worsen, paving the way for another crisis. damaging.
This is why a transitional justice process is necessary to achieve a meaningful and lasting resolution of the Gulf crisis. Transitional justice offers a multitude of options for societies that have suffered damage in the past, including truth-seeking, reparations, compensation, institutional reform, commemoration, documentation, national reconciliation and criminal liability. Due to the social impact of the Gulf crisis, a reconciliation process that addresses the past constructively is a transitional justice mechanism that will be crucial in restoring confidence and avoiding similar crises in the future.
Immediately after the blockade was imposed in 2017, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates expelled Qatari citizens and ordered their own citizens to leave Qatar. Instead of launching retaliatory measures against stranded countries, Qatar allowed its citizens to stay in the country. Many GCC residents in Qatar left, but some also felt compelled to stay, as they were connected with family, work and education.
But this expulsion and recall of Gulf citizens had a significant social impact as it resulted in an unprecedented family separation. Brothers and sisters, parents, cousins and other family members could no longer visit or see each other. Communication over the phone and on social media has also become difficult, if not risky, as censorship laws in countries blocking the blockade provided for severe penalties for criticizing the authorities and expressing sympathy for Qatar.
The nearly four-year blockade and the cloud of political tensions that supported it have only deepened feelings of resentment and mistrust, both within families and among Gulf nationals. Disinformation campaigns and online propaganda wars have divided families with cross-border connections.
Once inseparable relatives suddenly stopped talking to each other, while others engaged in political battles, exchanging harsh accusations. Bitter political feuds have taken place in WhatsApp family groups, with members blocking each other out. Animosity has been particularly intense in Qatari-Emirati relations throughout the blockade.
“The Gulf crisis has shattered societies,” Hamad al-Married, a Qatari who has family in Saudi Arabia, told me in a recent interview. “It was difficult to talk to relatives with whom I had always gotten along. There was this attitude of “you are with me or against me”. “
And so, it was an important moment when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani hugged each other on the Al-Ula tarmac earlier this month. But the deep anger and sense of betrayal provoked by the Gulf crisis at the intra-Gulf popular level cannot be corrected by such symbolic moments or by a political agreement negotiated behind closed doors.
Gulf reconciliation will require efforts that tackle the bitter past in order to prevent another such crisis from happening again. This is the very essence of the objectives of transitional justice.
Transitional justice focused on reconciliation
While transitional justice is traditionally seen as being applied in contexts where a country has moved from war or repressive rule to peace and democracy, it provides a valuable framework for Gulf reconciliation.
Transitional justice often requires that proper consideration of the past take place before a society can “turn the page” and move on. The current Gulf Rift has left a massive open wound that will require reconciliation initiatives led by both heads of state and affected Gulf nationals.
“Change in the Gulf often happens from top to bottom,” a Qatari senior researcher explained in an interview. She, along with other Qataris I interviewed, including those from mixed Gulf families, stressed that any meaningful reconciliation will need to be state approved and state led. Indeed, state-society relations in the Gulf are such that there is a level of trust and loyalty which allows leaders to influence social relations.
In the same way that state leaders and their media allies have fomented a breakdown in social trust since 2017, so that they can help rebuild it. Official statements in favor of protecting the social fabric of the region against political divisions will be needed to help cement the process of reconciliation. Other regional governments may undertake cross-border collaborative initiatives in various areas of public life to help restore confidence.
At the community level, a transitional justice process would be deeply personal and should be designed by those directly affected by the Gulf crisis. Reconciliation initiatives can include storytelling through documentation and oral history, cross-border family gatherings, protected transnational mobility of Gulf nationals, and a return to regional collaborations in business, art and sports. Collaborative art initiatives that document the stories of separated families, for example, will highlight their impact in the region and serve as a reminder of the damage caused by the crisis.
An important part of the reconciliation process is the recognition of the past. Qatar has already committed to this through commemoration in public spaces. It erects monuments and names public spaces “5/6” to mark the date of the start of the blockade. These are efforts to ensure that the memory of the blockade is entrenched, a kind of ‘we will never forget’.
As a Qatari man whose family members were expelled from Saudi Arabia during the crisis put it: “We should turn the page, yes. But we must not erase the pages which preceded it. Otherwise, we will see another crisis in the future. “
Ahead of the Al-Ula meeting, Qatar has reportedly agreed to drop its international lawsuits against countries blocking the blockade as a reconciliation measure. Yet his efforts to protect public memory from the blockade send a clear message: that the past three and a half years will be remembered as a time of victimization, resistance and resilience, and not just a time of political tension.
Transitional justice is important for a society to leave a painful past. Initiatives in this direction that Qatar undertakes would inevitably have a positive effect on its neighbors and help to use the region’s intertwined past to restore confidence in the future.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.