US State Dept chastises Riyadh, UAE over Qatar

The US State Department has issued a public warning suggesting that Saudi Arabia provoked the crisis and falsely led the US on.

WASHINGTON • The US State Department has issued an unusual public warning to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over a diplomatic rift with fellow US ally Qatar, and suggested that the Saudis may have provoked a crisis and drawn in the United States on false pretences.

State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said the administration was "mystified" that two weeks after announcing a diplomatic and economic embargo against Qatar over alleged support for terrorism, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not publicly detailed their complaints.

"The more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE," Ms Nauert said on Tuesday. "Were the actions really about their concerns about Qatar's alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries?"

All three nations are part of the six-member GCC, a loose diplomatic grouping of mostly wealthy Persian Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia the most powerful.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar this month and blocked trade and passenger traffic through their territories and airspaces, in protest of what the three said was Qatar's backing of extremist Islamist organisations, as well as its ties to Iran.

The diplomatic crisis has been a test of the new US administration's pull with Arab allies, and has pitted President Donald Trump's public support for the Saudi-led action against Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's preference for quiet, backroom diplomacy.

Mr Tillerson has had more than 20 calls and meetings devoted to helping resolve the crisis, Ms Nauert said, but now sees little further room for US mediation. But, she said, he wanted "results", and is now saying: "Let's finish this. Let's get this going."

The blockade was announced shortly after Mr Trump last month made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first overseas trip. He received an extravagant welcome and lavished his hosts with praise. He also met leaders of the UAE and Qatar individually, as well as at a GCC gathering, and signed a unity agreement with them.

Within days after his departure, Saudi Arabia announced the Qatar blockade. Mr Trump tweeted his support. In their conversations with him, he said, the others had "pointed" at Qatar as a source of terrorist financing. He implied that his Riyadh visit had inspired the Saudi-led action.

Mr Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, however, called for mediation and a quick resolution of the dispute. Qatar hosts the regional headquarters of the US Central Command and launches air operations to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan from a massive base there.

On June 9, Mr Tillerson asked reporters to the State Department to read a prepared statement calling for the blockade to be eased, saying it was causing humanitarian and business hardships, and hindering US military actions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The same day, Mr Trump called the blockade "hard but necessary", and appeared to reinforce his backing for the Saudi view of Qatari culpability.

Last week, Mr Mattis hosted Qatar's Defence Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah in Washington to finalise a US$12 billion (S$16 billion) sale of 36 F-16 fighter jets. Two US naval vessels made a port visit to Doha, the Qatari capital, and participated in an unscheduled military exercise with Qatar.

At a high-level White House meeting on the crisis last Friday, officials expressed frustration at the failure of Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis and the others to present a promised list of their demands of Qatar.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Treasury Department has accused virtually all of the GCC members of supporting terrorism in some fashion. Three successive US administrations have tried to deal with the issue, with varying success.

Although none of the governments is now believed to finance terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia continues to spread its extreme version of Islam throughout the Muslim world, while Kuwait and, especially, Qatar, are believed to turn a blind eye to individuals in their countries who engage in such funding.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline US State Dept chastises Riyadh, UAE over Qatar. Subscribe