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Saudi-Qatar deal to end blockade is close, say reports

Information about a new agreement comes as US Middle East envoy Jared Kushner tours Gulf countries
Senior Advisor to US President Jared Kushner, left, meets with Qatari ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the capital Doha on 2 December 2020 (AFP)

A deal between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to end the almost four-year blockade of Qatar could be close at hand, as US Middle East envoy Jared Kushner continued his tour of Gulf countries in the last days of the Trump administration. 

Sources told Qatari media outlet Al-Jazeera on Wednesday that the two countries were close to a "preliminary agreement" to ending the stand-off.

Riyadh, along with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, cut all ties with Qatar in June 2017 over allegations that Doha was too close to Iran and Iran-backed militant groups. Qatar has denied the accusations.

The boycotting countries have closed their airspace, land borders and sea channels to Qataris and vehicles registered in Qatar.

That has forced Qatar Airways aircraft to fly over Iran, Riyadh's arch-rival and a long-time adversary of Washington, paying significant overflight fees to Tehran in the process.

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Kushner is expected to tackle the Gulf crisis and push for progress towards ending the spat, as he began a visit to Qatar on Wednesday. 

The official Qatar News Agency reported that Kushner met with the country's ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, saying they discussed "developments in the region". 

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Few details have been made public about Kushner's trip, which could be his last chance to press diplomatic issues in a region that has been a focal point for the outgoing administration of his father-in-law, US President Donald Trump.

The Wall Street Journal quoted US officials on Wednesday as saying that the main focus of the talks would be to settle a dispute to allow Qatari planes to fly through the airspace of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Kushner has been joined on the trip by Avi Berkowitz, an assistant to Trump who played a key role in securing normalisation deals between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan earlier this year.

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made comments in recent weeks indicating a greater willingness to resolve the dispute.

However, sources told Bloomberg that the new deal would not involve the three other countries that severed ties with Qatar - the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

One source added that a broader regional realignment also remained a long way off as long as other issues - such as Qatar's relationship with Iran - were not resolved.

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