The new year began with cheer and optimism filling the air.
The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic which had begun in earnest back in March of last year when the first cases were discovered in Saudi Arabia, seemed to have reached the final lap of its morbid tenure as the ministry of health rolled out the vaccines in convenient locations across the kingdom, making them free of charge to citizens and residents alike. The only expense involved would be the gas your car would use to get there.
At the centre I had gone to, the organisation was impeccable, with courteous Saudi staff manning all stations from the entry point to the registration booths; and from the inoculation room to the recovery area where fresh juice and water were provided to those who needed it. This was indeed a well planned and executed operation of a massive scale that would involve the full temerity of the health ministry to process the estimated 35 million citizens and residents of the land. When you consider that Saudi Arabia is the largest and most populated country in the GCC and the task is to get the vaccine to all its residents, the logistics are staggering!
And that was not all the good news. The GCC was coming back together. At the 41st Gulf Cooperation Summit held in Alula, Saudi Arabia last week, Qatar was back in the fold. Broadcast live on Saudi state TV, viewers saw the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) walk up the tarmac to the Qatari ruler’s aircraft and greet Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to Alula with a warm embrace that was sure to dispel any notions that these were simply diplomatic niceties. There was no mistaking the genuine response from the Qatari Emir that he too was happy to be there.
This was no photo-session summit aimed at appeasing waiting photographers and media personnel. This summit was to tackle real issues and it did. In the end, all the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council signed the Alula declaration, effectively restoring full diplomatic ties with the country. The Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud told a news conference after the gathering that there was political will and good faith to guarantee the implementation of the agreement to restore diplomatic and other ties, including the resumption of flights.
Qatar was back in the fold of the GCC with a warm embrace, leading the UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash to declare that “the declaration is a significant step at resolving a difficult and painful crisis within the GCC and the Gulf ... The more the GCC is closer together, the more collectively it agrees on geostrategic issues,” adding “I’m glad this is coming to an end.”
That pleasure was shared across the Arabian Peninsula as Saudis and Qataris alike rejoiced in the newly restored bonds of brotherhood. The pains of watching brothers fight were dismissed as people took to social media to praise the efforts of King Salman and the Crown Prince to bring this summit together and forge brotherhood among the GCC nations. As one Saudi quipped, “While the Arab world is beginning to come together, across the Atlantic, America seems gripped in turmoil.” He was commenting on the pro-Trump demonstrators who had stormed the US Capitol while it was still in session, leading many US politicians to term it an act of terrorism.
Perhaps none were more pleased by the results of the GCC Summit than the hundreds of separated families and relatives of Saudi-Qatari unions who were torn apart as a result of the rift and had to choose one or the other for the past few years. With the easing of tensions and the restoration of relations between the countries, many were rejoicing at the anticipated reunions that would follow shortly with their loved ones.
The Saudi economy seemed to have taken note of all good things and expectations are high that the country is prospering at a time when the world’s economy seems to have fallen apart. People have loosened their purses and local businesses have picked up. One of the dramatic impacts of the travel ban has been the boon to the local economy as the billions annually spent elsewhere have been poured back into the country, helping maintain the sound equilibrium to the Saudi economy.
There are challenges ahead as there are expected to be. But with the fresh optimism that has begun to appear with the dawn of the new year, Saudis are more than hopeful that the country is headed to a better future. Welcome, 2021!
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena