Policy shift: Detail reasons for Qatar boycott, US tells Arab allies

21 Jun 2017


In a sudden policy shift, the Trump administration on Tuesday demanded that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries boycotting Qatar detail their complaints about the Persian Gulf monarchy's alleged extremism and reach a speedy resolution to the diplomatic crisis.

The US State Department issued an unusual public warning to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over the diplomatic rift with fellow US ally Qatar, and suggested that the Saudis may have provoked a crisis and drawn in the United States on false pretences.

Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the administration was "mystified" that two weeks after announcing a diplomatic and economic embargo against Qatar over alleged support for terrorism  Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not publicly detailed their complaints.

Using the word "embargo" several times, Heather Nauert also questioned if the actions were a response to Qatari support for extremism, as the Saudis and others claim, or reflect other tensions.

The comments suggested Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was losing patience in a mediation attempt.

"The more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE," Nauert said.

"At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns about Qatar's alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?"

All three nations are part of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose diplomatic confederation of mostly wealthy Persian Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is the most powerful of them.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt, severed diplomatic ties with the small nation of Qatar this month and blocked trade and passenger traffic through their territory and airspace in protest against what the three said was Qatar's backing of extremist Islamist organizations, as well as its ties to Iran.

The diplomatic crisis has been a test of the new US administration's pull with Arab allies, and has pitted President Donald Trump's public support for the Saudi-led action against Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's preference for quiet, backroom diplomacy. Tillerson has had more than 20 calls and meetings to help resolve the crisis, Nauert said, but now sees little further room for US mediation.

But, she said, he wants "results" and is now saying: "Let's finish this. Let's get this going."

The blockade was announced shortly after Trump last month made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first overseas trip. He received an extravagant welcome and lavished his hosts with praise. He also met with leaders of the UAE and Qatar individually, as well as at a GCC gathering, and signed a unity agreement with them.

Mixed messages
Until Tuesday, the US had generally aligned itself with Saudi Arabia. Trump had tweeted that Arab leaders had told him they blamed Qatar for funding extremism. That was shortly after Saudi Arabia and its partners cut ties with Qatar and blocked air, sea and land traffic to the peninsular nation.

Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, however, called for mediation and a quick resolution of the dispute. Qatar hosts the regional headquarters of the US Central Command that launches air operations to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan from a massive base there.

On 9 June Tillerson asked reporters to the State Department to read a prepared statement calling for the blockade to be eased, saying it was causing humanitarian and business hardships, and hindering US military actions against Islamic State.

The same day, Trump, speaking at a Rose Garden news conference, called the blockade "hard but necessary" and appeared to reinforce his backing for the Saudi view of Qatari culpability.

Last week, Mattis hosted Qatar's defence minister in Washington to finalise a $12-billion sale of 36 F-16 fighter jets. Two US naval vessels made a port visit to Doha, the Qatari capital, and participated in an unscheduled military exercise with Qatar.

At a high-level White House meeting on the crisis Friday, officials expressed frustration at the failure of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and the others to present a promised list of their demands of Qatar. "It's been two weeks," said one senior administration official, who spoke Tuesday of the sensitive issue on the condition of anonymity. "We still haven't seen this list."

Nauert referred to "alleged" Qatari support for terrorism but would not go into detail at the State Department briefing about whether Trump or Tillerson have changed their minds about the veracity of the Saudi claims.

As the crisis drags on, the Trump administration risks looking like a pawn in an old dispute over differing approaches to extremism, free expression and potential challenges to Arab authoritarianism.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long objected to Qatar's more liberal support for political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has also used its wealth, as the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, to support groups such as Hamas.

Although all the GCC countries are members of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, and Qatar is part of the Saudi and Emirati campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, Qatar also favours dialogue with Iran, the Shiite power that Saudi Arabia considers to be its chief rival.

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