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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Tillerson arrives in Kuwait to push for Qatar resolution

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson will visit the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar after a meeting with Kuwait’s top officials

The emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah (R), receives US secretary of state Rex Tillerson (L) at Bayan Palace in Kuwait City on July 10, 2017.  Kuna / AFP
The emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah (R), receives US secretary of state Rex Tillerson (L) at Bayan Palace in Kuwait City on July 10, 2017. Kuna / AFP

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson will visit the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar after a meeting with Kuwait’s top officials in the first major American push to broker a resolution to the Qatar crisis.

The US diplomat landed in Kuwait on Monday night and will shuttle between the Gulf countries this week in an attempt to mend the row.

While no fixed schedule has been announced, Mr Tillerson plans to stay in Kuwait until Thursday, but will make day-trips to other GCC countries for meetings.

Kuwait has served as chief mediator in the Gulf crisis, with its emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, visiting his counterparts in the quartet of Arab countries boycotting Qatar.

In the worst breakdown of relations in GCC history, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on June 5. They accused the country of financing terrorism and extremist groups, and plotting to undermine the region through interference in their domestic affairs.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO faces a tough week pushing for a resolution to the dispute after Qatar last week dismissed a series of demands from the quartet.

“The issue of sovereignty has played a central role in this crisis, and so, if Tillerson is seen as trying to curtail sovereign decisions of the independent states involved, his advice may go unheeded,” Professor Courtney Freer, a researcher at the London School of Economics - Kuwait Programme, said. “This really is the first test of his ability in the region. He does have experience working there."

After arriving, Mr Tillerson met with Kuwait's emir and the foreign minister of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid and cabinet Minister Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. Earlier, Kuwait’s deputy prime minister and interior minister Sheikh Khaled Al Jarrah Al Sabah received UK national security advisor Mark Sedwill in Al Bayan Palace.

Mr Tillerson's meetings are expected to focus on how to approach the crisis. A Kuwaiti interior ministry source said Kuwait welcomes Mr Tillerson’s experience to aid the mediation effort but said it cannot be seen as US interference in what Washington has itself called a “family dispute.”

"The trips to Saudi Arabia and Qatar are about the art of the possible," said RC Hammond, a senior adviser to Mr Tillerson. "We want progress on terrorism financing. The president strongly believes that if you cut off financing, you cut off the ability of terror to take hold in new areas."

He added that the longer the dispute goes on, "the more opportunity there is for Iran".

Mr Tillerson believes the Qatar dispute is hampering US military operations in the region and the campaign against ISIL. The regional headquarters of US central command is hosted by Qatar at the Al Udeid airbase.

Cooperation between Kuwait and the state department is expected to intensify as the US follows through with its recent decision to become more involved in the crisis.

The state department has consistently called for mediation while president Donald Trump initially backed the quartet in it allegations that Qatar is funding terror groups.

Officials from all the countries involved held meetings with Mr Tillerson in Washington last month.

Last week Qatar rejected the Arab quartets 13 demands, which included stopping the funding and hosting of extremist groups, downgrading relations with Iran and no longer hosting Turkish troops.

The foreign ministers of the four countries said they would meet in Manama to address what next steps they would take “in due time.”

With the standoff set to continue for weeks or months, Qatar has been attempting to offer reassurance that it can weather the boycott.

On Monday, the central bank governor Sheikh Abdullah bin Saoud Al Thani, said Qatar has enough cash reserves and assets to see through the measures taken against it.

“We have enough cash to preserve any - any kind of shock,” the governor told CNBC.

Qatar’s central bank had $40 billion (Dh147bn) in cash reserves plus gold and the Qatar Investment Authority has $300bn he said.

The rating agency Moody's last week downgraded Qatar's outlook to negative from stable, because of what it regards as an increased probability that the dispute will not be solved quickly.