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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Erdogan meets King Salman in push for Qatar mediation

It came as the head of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, met with the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Saudi King Salman in Jeddah on July 23, 2017. Turkish Presidential Press Office / EPA
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Saudi King Salman in Jeddah on July 23, 2017. Turkish Presidential Press Office / EPA

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with King Salman in Saudi Arabia on Sunday as part of a push for mediation efforts to resolve the crisis with Qatar.

Mr Erdogan, who was greeted at his aeroplane by the governor of Mecca province, Prince Khalid Al Faisal, also met separately with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was later due to travel to Kuwait, which is leading the mediation efforts over the Qatar crisis, before heading to Doha the following day. There, Mr Erdogan is set to have his first meeting with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim, since the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt moved to isolate the country.

The Turkish president's visit to Jeddah came as the head of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, met with Sheikh Tamim in Qatar.

"The meeting reviewed joint operations between the Qatar Armed Forces & U.S Military in the field of combating terrorism & violent extremism," the Qatari ministry of defence tweeted.

Before flying to Jeddah on Sunday, Mr Erdogan said he hoped his visit would be "beneficial for the region".

He said “enemies” were responsible for causing tensions between “brothers” in the region, and praised Qatar for seeking to find a solution through dialogue.

"No one has any interest in prolonging this crisis any more," he added.

Qatar has been Ankara’s closest Gulf ally since 2011 when both countries backed Islamist political parties and rebels during the Arab Spring. Mr Erdogan’s public position on the measures taken by the four countries to try and force Qatar to end its alleged support for terrorist groups and extremist movements has angered quartet officials.

Turkey’s moves to shore up Qatari imports of food during the crisis and accelerate pre-existing plans to send troops to its new base in Qatar were seen by the four countries as Ankara decisively backing Doha against them.

One of the initial quartet demands was the closure of the permanent Turkish military base, a call that both Ankara and Doha said would be a violation of sovereignty.

Observers say that because of Mr Erdogan’s unambiguous stance on the dispute, there is little chance for his shuttle diplomacy efforts to have an effect. He will likely be more concerned about safeguarding his country’s growing economic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE at a time when Gulf markets and investors are increasingly crucial.

"As the elder statesman in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia has a big role to play in solving the crisis," Mr Erdogan said on Sunday.

The Turkish president’s foray into Gulf diplomacy came as European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini called for direct talks to agree "a road map for a swift resolution" of the Qatar crisis.

Her call came after she met with Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah and other officials and expressed EU support for Kuwait's "relentless mediation efforts" in the dispute.

Ms Mogherini said the EU was ready to support the process of negotiations and assist in the implementation of a plan for the resolution of the crisis, in particular in the area of counter-terrorism.

It follows recent visits to both sides in the crisis by US, British, French and German senior diplomats. While there has been no breakthrough, in recent days there has been a perceptible easing of rhetoric. It is still unclear, however, on what exact points negotiation or compromise is possible, as both sides have staked out zero-sum positions.

Sheikh Tamim addressed the crisis publicly for the first time on Friday, saying that Qatar was willing to engage in talks with the quartet but that his country’s sovereignty must be respected.

The speech came hours after US secretary of state Rex Tillerson urged the quartet to open Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia as a confidence building measure. Mr Tillerson said the bilateral agreement he signed with his Qatari counterpart creating a US role in Doha’s financial counter-terrorism efforts had addressed the main grievances and was being “aggressively implemented” by Qatar.

On Sunday, UK foreign minister Boris Johnson joined Mr Tillerson’s call for an easing of the quartet's isolation measures in order to allow direct negotiations to begin.

“We hope that in turn Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain respond by taking steps towards lifting the embargo,” he said. “This will allow substantive discussions on remaining differences to begin.”

But no steps on the land, sea and air boycott have been forthcoming, and the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, said on Saturday that Qatar must change its policies before negotiations can begin.

* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse