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Gulf nations head to football tournament in Qatar, signalling possible thaw in regional dispute

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have confirmed participation in the Arabian Gulf Cup in Doha later this month, more than two years after severing ties with their Gulf neighbour
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz walks with the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during a 2015 summit in Riyadh (File / Reuters)

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have announced that they will participate in the Arabian Gulf Cup hosted by Qatar later this month, signalling a possible easing of  tensions in the region.

In separate statements, the three countries said on Tuesday that they had accepted an invitation to compete in the 24th edition of the tournament in Qatar, which takes place from 24 November to 6 December. 

In June 2017, the trio, along with Egypt, severed political, trade and transport ties with Qatar, accusing their fellow Gulf Arab state of supporting terrorism - an accusation that Doha has denied repeatedly. 

The three countries also boycotted the last Gulf Cup tournament in 2017, originally schedule to be held in Qatar, but reversed their decision after the event was moved to Kuwait.

Now, the simultaneous decisions to allow national teams to travel to Qatar for the tournament comes amid growing signs of a possible easing of tensions between the Gulf countries. 

On Tuesday, the Saudi-funded Elaph news website reported that the boycotting countries were “taking a step” towards “setting directions” for its media outlets to avoid commenting on Qatar in political and sports programmes.

Other signs of a rapprochement include visits made to Oman by Abdullah Bishara, a former Kuwaiti secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's deputy defence minister.

Both Oman and Kuwait have been mediating in the row that has fractured the GCC.

The Saudi prince met with Oman’ ruler Sultan Qaboos on Monday to discuss region and bilateral relations, according to a tweet by bin Salman.  

“Ongoing discussions”

Earlier this week, an unnamed Saudi official told Bloomberg that Qatar had taken steps to de-escalate the tension with neighbouring Gulf nations.

Qatar's foreign minister, after meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also told reporters that there had been "some discussion about the ongoing Gulf dispute".

“Qatar appreciated America's efforts to preserve the unity of the GCC and to return it back to what it used to be," Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said on Tuesday.

Soon afterwards, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emarati academic and former advisor to UAE's crown prince, published a post on Twitter saying: “I can share with you that important developments will be taken towards solving the Gulf dispute sooner than you expect.'' 

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Abdulla reinterated that a decision had been made to stop the negative media campaign against Qatar and said the decision to join the Gulf Cup was political.