'Saudi Arabia, UAE considered military action against Qatar before Trump warning to back off'

Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and US President Donald Trump meet at the Palace Hotel on Sept 19, 2017 in New York City. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) - Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates considered military action in the early stages of their ongoing dispute with Qatar before Mr Donald Trump called leaders of both countries and warned them to back off, according to two people familiar with the US president's discussions.

The Saudis and Emiratis were looking at ways to remove the Qatari regime, which they accused of sponsoring terrorism and cozying up to Iran, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were confidential.

Mr Trump told Saudi and UAE leaders that any military action would trigger a crisis across the Middle East that would only benefit Iran, one of the people said.

More recently, the Trump administration has quietly sent high-level messages to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to try to defuse the quarrel.

Mr Trump, who initially sided with the Saudi-led bloc, had a change of heart because of evidence that a prolonged dispute with Qatar will serve as an advantage to Iran, according to a US official familiar with his thinking.

Mr Trump met with Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday (Sept 19).

Asked by a reporter if he had warned Saudi Arabia and the UAE against military action in the country, Mr Trump responded, "No."

At the same meeting, Mr Trump confronted the Qatari leader with what one US official said is evidence that Qatar is still engaged in terrorism-related activity and told him it has to stop.

It wasn't clear when the conversations on potential military action took place. The Saudis, backed by the UAE and two other regional allies, broke off diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June, imposed an economic embargo and cut transport links.

They've since issued multiple demands, including the closure of Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera, that haven't been met. Qatar denies all the accusations and accuses the Saudis of seeking to dominate smaller neighbours.

Mr Trump said on Tuesday that the US is pushing for an end to the Gulf dispute.

"We are right now in a situation where we're trying to solve a problem in the Middle East," he said. "I have a very strong feeling that it will be solved, and pretty quickly."

Those comments reflected how Mr Trump has changed his thinking on the Qatar dispute in the past 10 days or so, becoming more sympathetic with the Qataris after previously backing the Saudi-led bloc and saying his priority is to clamp down on terror financing, according to the US official familiar with his thinking.

Mr Trump is now determined to see it resolved soon.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defence Secretary James Mattis have seen indications that the Iran problem is becoming more significant and agree that the Qatar dispute leaves an opening for Iran, according to the official.

Saudi Arabia denied that military action was ever considered. The allegations are entirely incorrect, have already been denied, and amount to nothing more than typically misleading Qatari propaganda, said a Saudi official familiar with the matter.

Emirati officials have said in the past that the dispute can only be resolved by political, not military, means. A Bloomberg reporter who requested comment was directed to those past statements.

Another US official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Mr Trump put pressure on all parties and encouraged Qatar to reach out to the Saudi-led bloc.

The dispute among some of the world's top energy producers flared up a few days after Mr Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip as president, for a meeting with Gulf leaders including Qatar's Sheikh Tamim.

Mr Trump described that summit as "epic and very important" in his comments on Tuesday.

In its immediate aftermath, the president publicly backed the Saudi demands, while Mr Tillerson and other administration members took a more cautious line.

Saudi Arabia is a longstanding US ally, while Qatar hosts the biggest American military base in the region.

The standoff has yet to be resolved, despite efforts by Kuwait to mediate. Mr Trump made a push to settle it this month, after talks in Washington with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah.

The US president made a flurry of calls with Gulf leaders, saying the dispute was distracting US allies from forging a united front against Iran.

Outlining his mediation efforts at a press conference with Mr Trump, Sheikh Sabah said, "Thank God, what's important is that we stopped any military thing."

The Saudi-led coalition responded with a statement saying that a "military solution was never and will never be on the table".

Sheikh Tamim told the UN earlier on Tuesday that the blockade on his country was an "unjust" attempt to destabilise a sovereign nation. He said Qatar is open to dialogue, but won't be dictated to.

The Gulf standoff has opened new fault lines in a Middle East already roiled by wars in Syria and Yemen.

Egypt and Bahrain joined the Saudi-led boycott, while Turkey and Iran provided supplies to Qatar as its import routes were closed. Qatar is the world's richest country per capita and the biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas.

The campaign against Qatar is part of a more assertive foreign policy pursued by Saudi Arabia in recent years, especially since the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to key positions in the oil-rich kingdom's government.

The Saudis have also backed rebels in Syria's civil war, and led a ground and air campaign aimed at subduing Iranian-linked fighters in neighbouring Yemen.

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