DOHA • Qatar said yesterday that a 13-point list of demands made by Saudi Arabia and its allies impinged on its sovereignty and failed to meet US expectations they be "reasonable".
The response came as a senior United Arab Emirates (UAE) official said that if Qatar did not accept the ultimatum, "the alternative is not escalation" but a parting of ways.
"The alternative is not escalation, the alternative is parting of ways, because it is very difficult for us to maintain a collective grouping," UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said.
He said diplomacy remained a priority, but added that mediation efforts to resolve the dispute had been undermined by the public disclosure of the demands.
"The mediators' ability to shuttle between the parties and try and reach a common ground has been compromised by this leak," he said.
"Their success is very dependent on their ability to move but not in the public space," he added.
The four Arab governments delivered the demands to Qatar through Kuwait last Thursday, more than two weeks after severing all ties with the emirate and imposing an embargo. The demands were sweeping in their scope, requiring Doha to join Riyadh and its allies in outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has long supported.
They also required Doha to close Iran's embassy and a Turkish base on its territory as well as shut Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television.
Qatar was also required to end all contacts with opposition groups in the four countries - Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
The demands were apparently aimed at dismantling Qatar's two-decade-old interventionist foreign policy, which has incensed its Arab neighbours.
In Qatar's first response to the demands, government communications director, Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed Al-Thani, said yesterday that they went far beyond the four governments' stated aim of combating terrorism.
"This blockade is not aimed at fighting terrorism but at impinging on Qatar's sovereignty and interfering in its foreign policy."
He recalled that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said last Wednesday that Washington wanted a clear list of grievances that was "reasonable and actionable". This list "does not meet those standards", he said.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have put enormous pressure on Qatar to meet their demands.
Since the crisis began earlier this month, it has escalated.
The UAE made the expression of sympathy towards Qatar punishable by law. Saudi Arabia deported 15,000 Qatari camels grazing in its territory.
Qatar Airways was blocked from entering Saudi, Egyptian, Emirati, and Bahraini airspace. Food exports to Qatar were stopped at the border.
The US reaction has been confusing. The Trump White House views the roster of demands as at least a starting point for further talks, according to an administration official.
The US will facilitate further talks - Mr Tillerson has participated in dozens of phone calls and meetings - but wants the countries involved to solve the crisis without direct American mediation, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing diplomatic initiatives.
"We believe it is a family issue" among the Middle East neighbours, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Friday.
"This is something they want to, and should, work out for themselves," he added.
The US challenge will be to gauge how ready Saudi Arabia and its allies are for real negotiations with Qatar, or whether they simply want to inflict maximum economic damage on the tiny country, and get to discussions later.
"It's a very aggressive stance, a very aggressive opening position by the Saudi alliance and I think one meant to show to Qatar that they're digging in for the long haul," said Mr Amir Handjani, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. "They want to give the maximum amount of time for Qatar to feel economic pain."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES