Saudi foreign minister sees path toward ending rift with Qatar

Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan visited Washington for a US-Saudi strategic dialogue at the State Department on Oct 14. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Saudi Arabia's foreign minister signalled progress may be underway toward resolving the three-year-old rift with its neighbour Qatar, following a meeting in Washington with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

"We continue to be willing to engage with our Qatari brothers, and we hope that they are as committed to that engagement," Prince Faisal bin Farhan said in a virtual discussion hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Thursday (Oct 15).

"But we do need to address the legitimate security concerns of the quartet, and I think there is a path toward that" with a solution "in the relatively near future."

The rift in relations started in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt abruptly severed diplomatic, trade and transport ties with Qatar, saying its government supported militant groups and had meddled in their internal affairs for years.

Qatar has vehemently denied those claims. In June, Kuwait, a mediator between Qatar and its quartet of Gulf Arab neighbours, said there was progress toward resolving the standoff. Yet the crisis continues.

Prince Faisal visited Washington for a US-Saudi strategic dialogue at the State Department on Wednesday that included discussions about relations with Israel, the US's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran and the war in Yemen.

The Trump administration has leaned on the Saudis to normalise relations with Israel, as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to do.

But Prince Faisal said the focus should remain on Palestinian-Israeli peace talks before any formal rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

He said Saudi Arabia isn't looking for conflict with Iran but argued that Trump's maximum pressure campaign is working, weakening the regime and depleting it of the resources needed to prop up its proxies in the region.

He said the goal of such pressure must be to bring Iran back to the negotiating table for a "JCPOA ++", a reference to 2015 Iran deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump quit the accord in 2018.

Although the event's moderator observed that Saudi Arabia might face more pressure if Democrat Joe Biden wins the November presidential election, Prince Faisal said that the Saudi-US relationship will endure any domestic changes in the US.

He acknowledged the US is undergoing a unique presidential campaign.

"The US is a robust democracy going through a very interesting process," he said.

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