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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Will Qatar agreement to tackle terror funding ease tensions?

Qatar’s record on shutting down extremist fund-raising networks and jailing those responsible has been criticised by the US, and is the one demand of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt that US president Donald Trump has backed.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, left, and the Qatari minister of foreign affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani signing a memorandum of understanding  in Doha, Qatar on July 11, 2017. Alexander W Riedel/US State Department via AP
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, left, and the Qatari minister of foreign affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani signing a memorandum of understanding in Doha, Qatar on July 11, 2017. Alexander W Riedel/US State Department via AP

The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, began his bid to end the Gulf crisis on Tuesday by announcing a new counter terrorism fund-raising agreement between Washington and Doha, a move that both sides hope indirectly addresses a core demand by the countries isolating Qatar.

Qatar’s record on shutting down extremist fund-raising networks and jailing those responsible has been criticised by the US, and is the one demand made by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt that US president Donald Trump has backed.

Mr Tillerson, who is shuttling between Gulf capitals said on Tuesday that he hopes a resolution to the crisis will emerge this week. But will a sole focus on countering terrorism financing — and not the underlying clash of visions for the region that pits Doha against Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — be enough to convince the boycotting countries to return to normal relations?

According to one Gulf Arab observer, it is unlikely the four countries will accept Qatar back into the GCC fold based on this one face saving measure and a return to the status quo. “They want to resolve the Qatar issue once and for all,” the observer said.

Neither side has had sufficient incentive to compromise, and Mr Trump’s vocal support for the measures to isolate Qatar in their early days bolstered the quartet. But Mr Tillerson’s efforts now do appear to have fuller support from the White House, and his ability to speak on behalf of Mr Trump will give him significant leverage.

Whether that will be enough is still unclear.

Speaking next to his Qatari counterpart in Doha on Tuesday, the US secretary of state emphasised that the anti-terror financing agreement, enshrined in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Qatar was part of Mr Trump’s objectives during his summit in Riyadh in May.

“I am here in Qatar today carrying with me the same spirit which President Trump travelled to Riyadh with in May,” Mr Tillerson said. “The United States has one goal: drive terrorism off the face of the Earth. The president said, and I quote, “Every country in the region has an absolute duty to ensure that terrorists find no sanctuary on their soil.”

Last week, before the foreign ministers from the quartet met in Cairo to discuss their response to Qatar’s refusal to accept their demands, Mr Trump spoke with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi and "called on all parties to negotiate constructively to resolve the dispute".

“The expectation was there would be additional escalatory measures taken and that didn't happen, and that. I think, was directly attributable to the president’s call to Sisi,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a fellow at the Gulf States Institute in Washington. It was likely that Mr Trump came round to the view of the secretaries of state and defence that core US interests are being undermined by the crisis, he added.

“So if the concerns about terrorist financing can be addressed, which the MOU supposedly does, then that should be an important step to resolve the crisis,” Mr Neubauer said. “The wild card of course is how this is being perceived in Riyadh, and I think we’re going to find that out once Tillerson arrives in Jeddah."

An early indication of the kind of reception awaiting him came from Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. The crisis, Dr Gargash tweeted, was about "absence of trust". Referring to the MOU, he said: "Diplomacy must address Qatar's support for extremism and terrorism and undermining regional stability. A temporary solution is not a wise one."