Top US diplomat meets Amir – Terror finance monitoring mulled
KUWAIT: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived yesterday in Kuwait, the key mediator between Qatar and its Arab neighbors, for talks aimed at defusing the Gulf’s worst crisis in years. He immediately held talks with HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who is leading the mediation effort between the Gulf states. Tillerson will shuttle between Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia until Thursday in what is the first serious intervention by Washington in the Gulf crisis. In Doha, a Western diplomat said creation of a “terror finance monitoring mechanism” would feature in the talks, but declined to elaborate.
Tillerson was due to discuss the crisis later with Kuwait’s acting Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah. UK National Security Advisor Mark Sidwell, who was also received by the Amir, was scheduled to attend part of the meeting between Tillerson and the Kuwaiti foreign minister. The dispute has seen a Saudi-led alliance impose sanctions on Doha over its alleged ties to both Islamist extremist groups and Iran.
As they met in Egypt last week, Saudi Arabia and its allies said they planned to tighten sanctions against the gas-rich emirate, after Qatar refused to comply with a list of demands. A spokesman for Tillerson said ahead of his landing in Kuwait that it remained to be seen “if there’s even a possibility of some outcomes” towards resolving the crisis. “Right now, after Egypt, we’re months away from what we think would be an actual resolution and that’s very discouraging,” RC Hammond told reporters.
On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, suspending transport links with Doha and ordering all Qataris to repatriate within 14 days. The four nations later issued a list of 13 demands to be met to lift the sanctions, including that Qatar shut down broadcaster Al-Jazeera, close a Turkish military base and downgrade diplomatic ties with Iran. Qatar refused to meet the demands last week on the grounds they undermined its national sovereignty. It has also categorically denied having any ties to extremist groups.
“We will work with Kuwait and see if we can hash out a different strategy,” Hammond said, adding that the demands weren’t viable, at least as a package. “Individually there are things in there that could work.” Hammond would not elaborate on which demands Qatar could meet, but said concessions from the others would be required. “This is a two-way street,” he said of a dispute among parties that each have been accused of funding extremists in some way. “There are no clean hands.”
“The patience of the world has changed,” Hammond said, noting British and German foreign minister visits to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the past week to try to resolve the crisis quicker. A resolution could have ripple effects as well, he said, including reducing Iran’s influence and ability to support extremists. Iran has been building closer ties with Qatar and is sending food and other supplies there to make up for products the Arab embargo has kept out.
Tillerson, the former chief executive of energy giant Exxon Mobil, arrived in Kuwait after a stop in Istanbul, where he discussed the Syria war and a failed 2016 coup in Turkey. Tillerson was greeted at the airport by his Kuwaiti counterpart. The two chatted in the searing Kuwaiti sun and shared traditional Arabic coffee before sitting down for a meeting. Analysts say Tillerson’s success in the Gulf may be contingent on his ability to manoeuver regional skepticism over conflicting stances from Washington on the crisis. US President Donald Trump initially supported longtime US ally Saudi Arabia, but his stance was later contradicted when the US Department of State took a more neutral position.
Tillerson’s impact largely depends on whether regional officials “believe that the secretary of state is fully backed by President Trump”, London-based political analyst Neil Partrick said. “If Tillerson can convincingly frame his mission as delivering a deal for the United States that is all about defeating terrorism… then he may have some chance,” said Partrick, who focuses on Gulf politics.
But despite strong mediation efforts by Kuwait and others, governments across the region say they may remain deadlocked for the foreseeable future. “No diplomatic effort or… mediation will succeed without Doha being rational, mature and realistic,” UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted last week. Tillerson’s visit comes on the heels of a string of official visits to the region, including UN diplomats and the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany and Oman.
Despite the deadlock, regional experts say Washington’s interest in finding a solution to the crisis is a welcome step. “The tour comes after contradictory statements from Washington over the dispute,” said analyst Abdullah Al-Shayeji, a political science professor at Kuwait University. “It is a last-ditch effort to rescue the situation and try to resolve the crisis, which is impacting regional stability, the war on terror and the campaign against the Islamic State” group, Shayeji said. He said mutual concessions from the feuding states would however be necessary.
The United States and its Western allies have vast economic and political interests in the Gulf, which pumps one fifth of the world’s oil supplies, houses one third of proven global crude reserves and sits on one fifth of the world’s natural gas deposits.
Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the US has had some success in recent years persuading Qatar to take action against terrorist financiers. She said if the US appears to be siding with the Saudis and the others, the Qataris could respond by reverting to old habits. “If they feel a decrease in support from their neighbors and a bit more challenging relationship with the US, will they provide additional support to dangerous actors in the region, as part of their security strategy?” Plotkin Boghardt said. She added of Tillerson: “He’s putting his reputation as secretary of state on the line.”