Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Qatar crisis rolls on

Despite whistle stops by US Secretary of State Tillerson in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, an end to the confrontation between Doha and Gulf neighbours plus Egypt is not at hand, writes Khaled Dawoud


Tillerson with Salman (top); and with Tamim (photos: Reuters)

Even before his arrival in Saudi Arabia Sunday for talks with top officials, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was not optimistic that Washington could help mediate an end to the five-month long unprecedented rift between Qatar, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, on the other.

While the United States has maintained close ties with all five countries, observers remained confused on where Washington stands exactly on the growing dispute. While US President Donald Trump seemed to be closer to the position of the four Arab countries that accuse Qatar of supporting terrorist groups and meddling in their internal affairs, Tillerson repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution and even appeared to blame the four Arab countries boycotting Doha for the stalemate.

In an interview Thursday with Bloomberg before beginning his tour oversees, Tillerson blamed Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt  — or the Arab quartet — for the lack of progress towards ending the four-month-old crisis. “It’s up to the leadership of the quartet when they want to engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear, they are ready to engage,” said Tillerson. 

In his joint news conference with Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir Sunday, there was hardly any mention of the Gulf crisis, except by saying that the issue was among topics discussed. Tillerson chose instead to concentrate on more heated topics, such escalating tension between the US and Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal, and charges that Tehran provided support for several anti-US regimes and groups in the region. 

He also praised growing ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, hoping that such a warming in relations would help curtail Iran’s influence in the region. While in Riyadh, Tillerson participated in the inaugural meeting of the Coordination Council between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, unprecedented in nearly three decades. 

Relations have historically been negative between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, dating back to the days of late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose pan-Arab, nationalist rhetoric was unwelcomed in the conservative kingdom. Relations deteriorated further after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and threatened Saudi Arabia.

Tillerson with Salman (top); and with Tamim (photos: Reuters)

Even though Saudi Arabia participated actively in the US war to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003, providing military bases and opening its air space, Hussein’s removal did not improve relations with Baghdad. He was replaced with a ruling Shia coalition close to Iran, whom Saudi views as its number one enemy and the most serious threat to its national security.

“I think this Coordination Council establishment and this new reopening of relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iraq are extremely important to stability of the region, to the future of Iraq, and for the two countries,” Tillerson said in his brief media appearance with Al-Jubeir. 

He added that Iraq wanted “to develop the governmental capacities to resist any outside influence… And I think this does require a repairing and rebuilding of what had been historic relationships between Iraq and its Arab neighbours.”

Saudi Arabia was among a few world countries that welcomed Trump’s renewed hardline approach towards Iran and his refusal to certify the nuclear deal his predecessor, US Barack Obama, signed with Tehran together with major world powers, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Trump asked Congress to consider imposing new sanctions against Tehran if it continued to pose a regional threat by meddling in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Gulf region, as well as developing an advanced missile programme.

While the European Union and other parties insisted that Tehran was keeping its part of the agreement, and warned against the consequences of US pulling out, Tillerson warned European partners from doing more business with Iran.

“We did discuss President Trump’s new policy towards Iran, and King Salman gave a very strong endorsement of that policy to counter Iran’s malign behaviours in the region,” Tillerson said in Riyadh. “Both of our countries believe that those who conduct business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, any of their entities  — European companies or other companies around the globe — really do so at great risk. And we are hoping that European companies, countries and others around the world will join the US as we put in place a sanctions structure to prohibit certain activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that foment instability in the region and create destruction in the region both in terms of their involvement in Yemen, but their involvement in Syria as well,” he added.

The US secretary of state travelled to Doha from Riyadh shortly after the end of his news conference with Al-Jubeir and spoke more openly about the confrontation between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours and Egypt. He confirmed that there was no end in sight to the dispute, and stressed that Washington could not impose a solution.

“In my meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, I asked him to please engage in dialogue with Qatar but there is not a strong indication that parties are ready to talk yet, and so, we cannot force talks upon people who are not ready to talk,” said Tillerson.

He dismissed the possibility that Trump would summon his Gulf allies and Egypt to the White House to overcome their differences. “There has been no invitation to the White House because it’s not clear the parties are ready to engage. But we are going to continue to work towards that dialogue and towards that engagement. We cannot and will not impose a solution on anyone.”

When asked whether Washington’s failure to mediate a solution to the dispute among its key allies in the region harmed the US plan to counter Iran, Tillerson seemed to blame the four Arab countries for the growing relations between Doha and Tehran.

“With respect to Iran gaining, I think the most immediate and obvious gain that Iran has is that it is Qatar’s only airspace available to operate, and so it puts it in a position of having to engage with Iran in a positive way to meet Qatar’s needs. But this really removes a lot of other alternatives for Qatar to seek what’s best for its own people as well,” he said in Doha in a joint news conference with his Qatari counterpart, Mohamed bin Abdurrahman Al-Thani.

“So that’s just a simple example of what we are concerned about. But beyond that, anytime there is conflict and destabilisation among countries that are typically allies, someone will always come in to exploit those differences,” he added.

On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and announced a number of sanctions, including closing down their airspace and land borders with Doha. This resulted in major hardship and economic losses for Qatar, which, in return, sought to build closer ties with Iran, both to use its airspace and to provide key commodities that used to arrive from Saudi Arabia through the joint land border.

The Qatari foreign minister, meanwhile, reiterated his country’s stand, blaming the four Arab countries for the escalating crisis and the heated exchange of accusations. “You cannot speak of normalisation while instigation continues, while there is constant spending irrationally to promote propaganda against the State of Qatar in the West and spread false rumours,” said Al-Thani.

Any expectations that an end might come soon to the dispute between Qatar and the four Arab countries were also eroded by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi while on a visit to France that started Monday. In an interview with French television channel France-24, in Arabic, Al-Sisi insisted that Qatar had to comply first with 14 demands announced by the four countries upon severing diplomatic ties in June.

“They [Qatar] have to fulfil the 14 demands. We are not asking for anything strange,” Al-Sisi said. “All we want is that we live without anyone intervening in our internal affairs, without supporting terrorism or extremists, or the other measures that this country took,” he added.

Al-Sisi excluded the prospect of French mediation to end the dispute with Doha, noting that the problem could be solved between the two sides only. “Until now, the matter is between the two sides, and we repeat that our demands are clear: if they want to cooperate with us, they must carry out the 14 demands we announced with our brothers in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.”

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