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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Kuwaiti emir and King Salman meet over Qatar crisis as Trump backs UAE and Saudi

Sheikh Sabah’s visit came a day after the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and travel links to Qatar over Doha’s support for Islamist and militant groups.
King Salman and Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah in Jeddah on June 6, 2017 to discuss the GCC crisis. SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL JALOUD
King Salman and Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah in Jeddah on June 6, 2017 to discuss the GCC crisis. SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL JALOUD

Abu Dhabi and Muscat // The Kuwaiti emir arrived in Jeddah on Tuesday for talks with King Salman aimed at mediating an end to the gravest crisis to face the GCC.

Sheikh Sabah’s visit came a day after the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and travel links to Qatar over Doha’s support for Islamist and militant groups and its opposition to their Iran policies. The four countries removed diplomats from Doha, Qatari citizens were ordered to leave and travel and transport to Qatar was blocked.

The moves led to a day of chaos at airports across the Gulf on Monday as Qataris scrambled to find alternative routes home and Qatar Airways passengers sought information about flights.

As the uncertainty continued, Donald Trump took to Twitter to back Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s position on Qatar and their claims that it is a supporter of extremist groups. “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” the US president said.

Adel Al Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, said the damage caused by the measures should convince Qatar to change its policies.

“We believe that common sense and logic will convince Qatar to take the right steps,” he said. “The decisions that were made were very strong and will have a fairly large cost on Qatar and we do not believe that Qataris want to sustain those costs.”

Oman’s foreign minister was in Doha on Monday at the request of frantic Qatari officials who have requested Muscat help mediate, according to an Oman foreign ministry official.

The Omani source said there has been a flurry of contact between the two countries to solve the row. “Qatar is looking at Oman to mediate the current standoff so that the crisis will not accelerate,” the official said. “Oman is obliging and has already started the diplomatic process to mend the rift.”

He said Oman would stress the need for unity in the GCC as the current situation “threatens to break up the alliance”.

Muscat has been a crucial player in negotiations between regional enemies, including Riyadh and Houthi rebels in Yemen, and between Washington and Tehran. But its close relations with Iran may mean that Kuwaiti officials have a better chance of restoring relations with Qatar.

“With Oman now mediating in this latest diplomatic row, it might find it difficult to persuade the Saudis to swallow its pride and move on since both countries [Oman and Qatar] have something in common through their ties with Tehran. But Sultan Qaboos is a seasoned negotiator and if anyone can do it then he would do it,” Ahmed Al Falahy, a political commentator and a former Omani diplomat, said.

The Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim had been scheduled to give a speech on the crisis on Monday night, but was persuaded by Sheikh Sabah to postpone the address to give time to resolve the crisis, Qatar’s foreign minister said.

A crucial factor in the success of any attempts at mediation will be the role of the United States, the most important partner for each GCC member.

On Monday the US defence and foreign secretaries called for de-escalation and offered to mediate but on Tuesday, the US president made clear which side he was on and even claimed credit for the GCC crisis.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!” Mr Trump said on Twitter. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding ... extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar,” he added.

Some observers read the statement as a weakening or even breaking of a key US partnership over social media.

The US military’s Central Command is forward headquartered at the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, where about 10,000 US service members are stationed. Centcom runs the coalition fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria — where US-backed forces on Tuesday launched an assault on the extremists’ last stronghold, Raqqa — as well as operations in Afghanistan.

Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and militant groups like Hamas have long complicated its relationship with Washington — and proven valuable for behind-the-scenes efforts at other times. US treasury officials have in the past called on Qatar to do more to prosecute citizens involved in raising funds for militant groups, but the US military and intelligence agencies work closely with Doha and the airbase is a key component of Washington’s security strategy in the Gulf.

While some observers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia during the current crisis have called for the base to be relocated, the US military said in a statement on Monday there are “no plans” to change its posture in Qatar. The US maintains bases in Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain in part to reduce reliance on one country or axis.

The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said on Monday that “we certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences, and … if there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC remain unified.”

Mr Trump’s tweet raises questions over whether his top officials’ stance on helping broker a mediation still holds. It could also complicate the Kuwaiti and Omani efforts within the bloc to begin talks on resolving the crisis.

Qatar has also made strategic alliances with other regional and global powers in Europe and east Asia through investments and, crucially, gas deals that make the emirate key to their energy security.

Turkey has emerged as Qatar’s closest regional ally, and Ankara is building a permanent military base in the country, its first in the Gulf since the Ottoman era. But Turkey has also sought to rebuild ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and has not outright sided with Doha. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, has added to mediation efforts, and spoke to the leaders of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait as well as Sheikh Tamim in a bid to reduce tensions.

The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, said on Monday that the crisis with Qatar is the result of “the accumulation of years of incitement from a brother against his brethren.”

He opened the possibility of a de-escalation with Qatar, though he did not give specific details.

“Can the brother amend his behaviour? Can he be one to respect pledges and charters, to be mindful of brotherly and neighbourly relations, a partner in prosperity and adversity? Simply put, this is the framework for a solution,” he said.

Al Azhar, the Egypt based centre of Sunni Islamic scholarship, commended the measures taken against Qatar to “guarantee the unity of the Arab nation.”

The steps taken on Monday came after tensions had escalated since Mr Trump’s visit to Riyadh last month. The kingdom and Abu Dhabi accuse Doha of supporting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as well as supporting extremist ideology, and also undermining their security through links with Iran.

A spat in 2014 over similar anger with Doha’s policies was eventually defused, especially by King Salman’s desire to create a united front toward Iran and the growing ISIL threat, but the UAE’s deep suspicion over Qatar never dissipated. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia say Qatar never honoured the commitments it made in a declaration signed in Riyadh at the time.

At the heart of the tension is the support that Doha has given for decades to Islamist groups that intensified after the Arab Spring, and its maverick foreign policy choices that other GCC states saw as undermining stability.

While Qatar has appeared to pin its hopes to avoid an even larger crisis on mediation, there were also signs of defiance. Sheikh Tamim hosted the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Youssef Al Qaradawi, at an iftar on Monday, which was televised on Al Jazeera.

Al Qaradawi was at the centre of the 2014 tensions, and UAE and Saudi had demanded at the time that he not be allowed on Qatari media.

tkhan@thenational.ae

*Saleh Al Shaibany reported from Muscat