Saudis told to stop Qatar blockade, help heal Yemen

Camels belonging to Qatari owners stuck at Shuwaikh Port, Kuwait City, par for the course under the embargo against Qatar .
Camels belonging to Qatari owners stuck at Shuwaikh Port, Kuwait City, par for the course under the embargo against Qatar .PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RIYADH • As Saudi Arabia considers digging a moat along its border with Qatar and dumping nuclear waste nearby, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Riyadh on his first overseas trip as the nation's top diplomat with a simple message: Enough is enough.

Patience with what is viewed in Washington as a petulant spat within the Gulf Cooperation Council has worn thin, and Mr Pompeo told Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir that the dispute needs to end, according to a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on the meetings but who was not authorised to be named.

Last June, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led an embargo by four Arab nations of Qatar, accusing the tiny, gas-rich nation of funding terrorism, cozying up to Iran and welcoming dissidents.

Years of perceived slights on both sides of the conflict added to the bitterness.

Mr Pompeo's predecessor, Mr Rex Tillerson, spent much of his tenure trying to mediate the dispute, which also involved Egypt and Bahrain, but without success. The Saudis, keen observers of Washington's power dynamics, knew that Mr Tillerson had a strained relationship with President Donald Trump and so ignored him, particularly because Mr Trump sided with the Saudis in the early days of the dispute.

But Mr Pompeo is closer to Mr Trump and thus a more formidable figure. And in the nearly 11 months since the embargo began, Qatar has spent millions of dollars on a Washington charm offensive that paid off this month when its leader, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, had an Oval Office meeting with Mr Trump during which the President expressed strong support for the tiny country.

So Mr Pompeo came here to deliver the same message to Mr al-Jubeir at an airport meeting last Saturday afternoon; to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman later that night; and to King Salman in a meeting planned for Sunday: Stop.

Confronting Iran, stabilising Iraq and Syria, defeating the last of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and winding up the catastrophic civil war in Yemen are seen in Washington as increasingly urgent priorities that cannot be fully addressed without a united and more robust Arab response.

Mr Pompeo arrived in Riyadh on the same day that Houthi forces in Yemen shot eight missiles at targets in the southern Saudi province of Jizan, killing a man.

The fusillade was the latest sign that Yemen's blood bath is a growing threat to the region.

The vast humanitarian crisis in Yemen has become such a keen concern on Capitol Hill that influential senators have begun discussing restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

That would undercut other administration priorities, including an effort to increase such sales as well as attempts to get the Saudis to play a more active role in stabilising Syria and opposing Iran.

Poor targeting by the Saudis in air strikes, as well as the kingdom's blockade of Yemeni ports, have done much to worsen the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and Mr Pompeo told Mr al-Jubeir on Saturday that Yemen must have easy access to humanitarian and commercial goods, along with fuel, the State Department official said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2018, with the headline 'Saudis told to stop Qatar blockade, help heal Yemen'. Print Edition | Subscribe