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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Trump wants Gulf leaders at Camp David – but only after breakthrough in Qatar crisis

Renewed US involvement comes as Trump prepares for a string of visits by leaders from the feuding nations

President Donald Trump meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Trump wants to bring feuding Gulf leaders to Camp David for a show of solidarity with the United States. But there are strings attached: No breakthrough in the Qatar crisis, no Camp David. Evan Vucci / AP
President Donald Trump meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Trump wants to bring feuding Gulf leaders to Camp David for a show of solidarity with the United States. But there are strings attached: No breakthrough in the Qatar crisis, no Camp David. Evan Vucci / AP

President Donald Trump wants to bring feuding Gulf leaders to Camp David for a show of solidarity with the United States. But not without a breakthrough in the Qatar crisis first.

A potential summit of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council in May at the prestigious presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains will be scuttled unless Qatar and neighbours Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are on track to resolve the nearly year-long spat.

It's not clear that the Gulf countries even want to attend such a summit, which would require their leaders boycotting Doha to pose for friendly group photo-ops with the Qatari emir. But if there's one trait that unifies Qatar and its neighbours, it's a desire to show they are friendly with Mr Trump.

Yet even as the White House holds out hope for a summit, it's telling Gulf nations there's no sense in proceeding as long as the quarrelling countries are still not on speaking terms, according to several US officials and others briefed on the situation.

There's also concern that holding the summit while the crisis is still raging could lead to drama that would reflect poorly on Mr Trump the host, the individuals said.

Short of one side or the other fully capitulating, it's unclear what steps the countries could take that would demonstrate enough progress to merit moving ahead with the summit. But one proposal being floated by the US is for the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to end their air boycott of Qatar.

A Saudi official said the notion that the US was pressing Saudi Arabia to end the crisis to make way for a summit was "false," adding that the leaders of both countries "are keen on continuing co-operation between both our countries and between the GCC and the USA."

All of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorised to comment by name.

In June Qatar's neighbours severed ties and cut off air, sea and land access to the country over claims that the small monarchy was funding terrorism, disrupting Gulf unity and fomenting opposition across the region.

Eight months later, the crisis is at a standstill.

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Early on, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to broker a resolution, even shuttling between the countries for indirect talks. When that failed, the US stepped back, and has largely left it to Kuwait to mediate.

Since then, the US has offered cautious praise for steps Qatar has taken to address concerns about lax financial regulations that allowed funds to flow to terror groups.

But those steps have failed to satisfy Saudi Arabia and the other neighbours, whose list of demands also includes shutting down the news network Al Jazeera and cutting ties with extremist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar claims those demands constitute a major infringement on its sovereignty.

"Qatar's steps in addressing Trump's concerns regarding terror financing gave room for Tillerson to make the case to Trump that at least for Washington, the US concerns were largely addressed, and the outstanding differences between Qatar and its neighbours had become a distraction," said Andrew Bowen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

In a fresh push to resolve the dispute, Mr Trump's administration is sending Tim Lenderking, the top State Department official for the Gulf and retired Marine Corps. Gen. Anthony Zinni to the region to meet with officials from the countries involved in the dispute.

The renewed US involvement comes as Mr Trump prepares for a string of visits by leaders from the feuding nations. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will visit Washington in mid-March, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, is expected in the coming weeks as well.

Mr Trump spoke by phone this week with both leaders, as well as with Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The White House issued nearly identical descriptions of all three calls, saying the US president had discussed "a range of security and economic issues" without mentioning whether the regional crisis even came up.