Qatar dispute:Tillerson starts shuttle diplomacy

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) flew into Saudi Arabia where he met King Salman (right), whose country is leading a four-state alliance that has cut ties with Qatar over accusations that it supports extremism. The crisis has pre
United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) flew into Saudi Arabia where he met King Salman (right), whose country is leading a four-state alliance that has cut ties with Qatar over accusations that it supports extremism. The crisis has presented Mr Tillerson with his first big challenge as Washington's top diplomat.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Intense talks begin after Arab leaders reject recent anti-terror deal US signed with Qatar

JEDDAH • United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held talks yesterday with four Arab states boycotting Qatar as part of a round of intense shuttle diplomacy aimed at resolving the regional crisis.

Mr Tillerson flew into Saudi Arabia where he met King Salman, whose country is leading a four-state alliance that has cut ties with Qatar over accusations that it supports extremism.

He then began talks with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in an attempt to mend fences between the crucial US allies.

In a setback to his efforts, the four Arab states on Tuesday quickly dismissed a counter-terrorism deal signed between Qatar and the US as "insufficient".

The crisis has presented Mr Tillerson, well known in the Gulf for his former role as chief of energy giant ExxonMobil, with his first big challenge as Washington's top diplomat.

While US President Donald Trump welcomed the Arab states' decision to sever air and land links with their gas-rich neighbour, the US State Department has taken a more neutral position and Mr Tillerson is seeking to broker a diplomatic solution.

  • MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS IN THE QATAR CRISIS

  • JUNE 5: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and the Maldives sever diplomatic ties with Qatar. They accuse it of supporting "terrorists" and of being too close to Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival. Riyadh and its allies close land and maritime borders, suspend air links and expel Qatari citizens. Qatar claims its neighbours are pursuing a "policy of domination and control" and insists it will not back down.

    JUNE 6: Mauritania joins the boycott and Jordan trims its diplomatic presence in Doha.

    JUNE 7: The UAE says the measures against Qatar are "not about regime change" but about "change of policy".

    JUNE 9: Saudi Arabia and its allies publish a list of people and organisations they accuse of involvement in "terrorism" with support from Qatar. Doha calls the accusations unfounded.

    JUNE 12: Qatar's foreign minister denounces the sanctions as "unfair" and "illegal". Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls the punishment "inhumane and un-Islamic".

    JUNE 19: The UAE state minister for foreign affairs says Qatar's diplomatic isolation could last "years". Doha demands the "blockade" be lifted before talks on resolving the stand-off.

    JUNE 22: Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE send a list of 13 demands to Qatar, giving Doha 10 days to comply. Among the demands are shutting down Al Jazeera, curbing relations with Iran and closing a Turkish military base in the emirate.

    JULY 3: Ultimatum deadline is extended for 48 hours.

    JULY 4: Qatar's foreign minister says the list of demands "is unrealistic and is not actionable".

    JULY 5: Saudi-led bloc says it regrets the emirate's "negative response" to the list of demands, threatening new sanctions.

    JULY 11: US and Qatar sign an agreement to curb terrorism financing.

    AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mr Tillerson, who is spending much of this week in the Gulf seeking to end the dispute, passed on "greetings from President Trump" at his audience with King Salman at the royal court in Jeddah.

"He wanted to ensure that I extend to you his warmest regards," Mr Tillerson told the Saudi ruler.

The US and its Western allies have vast economic and political interests in the Gulf, which pumps one-fifth of the world's oil supplies.

While Saudi Arabia is a key US ally, Qatar is home to the US military's largest air base in the region, Al-Udeid. Rival Bahrain houses the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

On Tuesday, after a stop in regional mediator Kuwait, Mr Tillerson travelled to Doha where he described Qatar as being "reasonable" in its dispute with the four neighbouring states.

He also signed a deal which he said "lays out a series of steps the two countries will take over the coming months and years to interrupt and disable terror-financing flows and intensify counter-terrorism activities globally".

The deal meant Qatar was "the first to respond" to Mr Trump's call at a summit in Riyadh earlier this year "to stop the funding of terrorism", Mr Tillerson said, suggesting such deals could be signed with the other Arab states as a step towards ending the crisis.

But Tuesday's initiative was brushed aside by the Arab countries that imposed sanctions on Qatar last month.

"This step is insufficient," said a joint statement published by Saudi state news agency SPA, adding that the four states would "carefully monitor the seriousness of the Qatari authorities in combating all forms of financing supporting and harbouring terrorism".

Commitments made by the Qatari authorities "cannot be trusted", the statement added, citing previous agreements that have allegedly not been honoured.

The Saudi-led bloc has issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar, including closing broadcast giant Al Jazeera, downgrading ties with Iran and shutting a Turkish military base in Doha.

The four countries on June 5 announced sanctions, effective immediately, against Qatar over accusations Doha supported Islamist extremism and was too close to Iran.

They severed all diplomatic ties, suspended transport links with Doha and ordered all Qataris to return home within 14 days.

Qatar refused to comply with the ultimatum and has consistently denied accusations of ties to Islamist groups.

Mr Tillerson's visit is the latest in a series by officials to the region, including UN diplomats and the foreign ministers of Germany and Britain, to try to resolve the row.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will visit the Gulf this weekend, with stops in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2017, with the headline 'Qatar dispute:Tillerson starts shuttle diplomacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe