Top US diplomat Rex Tillerson begins tough Gulf talks on easing Qatar crisis

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on July 12, 2017, shows Saudi's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (R) greeting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ahead of their meeting in Jeddah. AFP
Qatar's foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson following a joint news conference in Doha, Qatar, July 11, 2017. REUTERS

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA (Reuters) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met ministers from four Arab states on Wednesday to try to end a dispute with Qatar after the countries labelled a US-Qatari terrorism financing accord an inadequate response to their concerns.

Any resolution of the impasse must address all the key issues for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, including Doha's undermining of regional stability, a senior UAE official said ahead of the talks in Saudi Arabia. His comments shed light on Tillerson's uphill challenge.

The four countries imposed sanctions on Qatar on June 5, accusing it of financing extremist groups and allying with the Gulf Arab states' arch-foe Iran. Doha denies those accusations. The four states and Qatar are all US allies.

Tillerson met the ministers in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea city of Jeddah in pursuit of an end to the worst dispute among Gulf Arab states since the formation of their Gulf Cooperation Council regional body in 1981. Kuwait, which is mediating in the dispute and not boycotting Qatar, also sent an envoy.

Tillerson also met separately with Saudi King Salman in talks focused on combating terrorism and its financing, the Saudi state news agency SPA said.

In a joint statement issued after Tillerson and his Qatari counterpart signed a memorandum of understanding setting out provisions to combat terrorism financing, the four countries issued a statement calling the accord inadequate.

They also reinstated 13 wide-ranging demands they had earlier submitted to Qatar, the world's biggest producer of liquefied natural gas, as a condition for removing sanctions but later said were void.

The demands include curbing Qatar's relations with Iran, closing the Al Jazeera TV channel, shutting a Turkish military base in Qatar and handing over all designated "terrorists" on its territory.

Speaking to reporters in Bratislava, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan said Tillerson's visit was not likely to resolve the dispute.

"I think it will ease tensions but it's just postponing the problem, which will grow in the future."


The crisis goes beyond the financing of terrorism, said Jean-Marc Rickli, a risk analyst at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, pointing to Gulf fears about the role of Iran, internal instability and the regional influence of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as competition for regional leadership.

"Whatever the outcome is, one of the two sides will lose face and losing face in the Arab world is something important. The consequences for the future will be negative for at least one camp or the other." France said its foreign minister would visit the Gulf, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, on July 15-16 as part of its own efforts to overcome the rift.

In their statement on Tuesday, the four boycotting states said they appreciated U.S. efforts in fighting terrorism. "... (But) such a step is not enough and they will closely monitor the seriousness of Qatar in combating all forms of funding, supporting and fostering of terrorism," the statement said, according to the UAE state news agency WAM.

Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, tweeted that the dispute was rooted in an absence of trust and that any solution must address the four states' grievances.

The United States worries the crisis could affect its military and counter-terrorism operations and increase the regional influence of Iran, which has been supporting Qatar by allowing it to use air and sea links through its territory.

Qatar hosts Udeid Air Base, the largest US military facility in the Middle East, from which US-led coalition aircraft stage sorties against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Some Gulf Arab media took a critical stance towards Tillerson ahead of his visit to Jeddah. "What makes Wednesday's meeting in Jeddah difficult is that Tillerson has, since the beginning of the crisis, appeared to be taking the Qatari side," a commentary published in Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat and Arab News newspapers said on Wednesday.

"Tillerson cannot impose reconciliation, but he could reduce the distance between the parties in the diplomatic rift - all of which are his allies - rather than taking the side of one against the other," wrote columnist Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the former general manager of the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya channel.

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