Qatar-Saudi Arabia direct flights resume amid Gulf detente

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A Qatar Airways jetliner landed in Saudi Arabia on Monday, completing the first direct flight from Doha to Riyadh since the kingdom’s boycott of the tiny, energy-rich state in 2017.

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The resumption of direct flights came after regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia reopened its borders and airspace with Qatar last week, paving the way for a broader rapprochement. At an annual Gulf summit meeting in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, representatives of the four boycotting countries signed a pledge to resolve the bitter dispute that has fragmented the typically clubby Gulf Cooperation Council and troubled America's foreign policy in the region, including its efforts to isolate Iran.

Qatar Airways announced it would restart daily service to the capital of Riyadh, four weekly flights to the Red Sea city of Jeddah and daily flights to the eastern city of Damman using wide-body aircraft like the Airbus A350-1000 that landed Monday. Saudi Airlines also flew to Doha later in the day.

“We also look forward to resuming a strong relationship with our trade and cargo partners in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as the major airports in the country,” the Qatar state airline said.

Bahrain’s civil aviation affairs authority joined in saying it would reopen its airspace to Qatar on Monday, following a similar weekend announcement from the United Arab Emirates. Still, travelers are not yet able to book direct flights to Qatar on state-owned Emirati and Bahraini airlines. Egypt, which also participated in the yearslong boycott, has not publicly elaborated on its restoration of ties with Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, seeking to unify Arab ranks and position itself as peacemaker ahead of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, led the push to end the spat with the backing of the United States and regional mediator Kuwait.

On Saturday, the first Qatari vehicles passed through the country’s only land crossing with Saudi Arabia, which the state relied on for the import of dairy products, construction materials and other goods before the border slammed shut in 2017. Anti-virus restrictions and mandated quarantines will slow the traffic during the coming months, and it remains uncertain whether deep-rooted mistrust will hinder the swift resumption of weekend getaways, a common pastime before the boycott.

Saudi state-run Ekhbariya TV broadcast what appeared to be carefully orchestrated footage of Qatari drivers receiving warm welcomes at the Abu Samra-Salwa desert crossing over the weekend. Several Saudi citizens in their traditional red-and-white-checkered headdresses thronged the cars, lowering their masks to touch noses with the Qatari drivers, a gesture of friendship and respect.

“Thank God that the crisis has been resolved, and that our reception is nice, as is the joy we see in our brothers," one of the first Qatari citizens to pass through the border told the Saudi newscaster.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Bahrain and Egypt, severed commercial and diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing the state of cozying up to Iran and financing extremist groups in the region. Doha denied the charges, criticizing the boycott as a bid to subvert its sovereignty.

Amid the new burst of diplomatic niceties, lingering tensions between the countries have already surfaced. Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday condemned Qatar for scooping up a Bahraini bodybuilding champion, Sami al-Haddad, from his fishing cruise in Bahrain's territorial waters, the latest in a series of alleged arrests by the Qatari coast guard in a long-running maritime border dispute. Qatar did not immediately comment on the incident.

Late on Sunday, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash struck a cautionary note when asked about reconciliation in an interview with Arab satellite news channel Sky News Arabia.

“There is no doubt that the people of the Gulf want this reconciliation, they want to turn a new leaf," he said. "But ... there are some issues, some difficult issues that will come up in the next phase.”