Tillerson Cancels Mexico Trip to Focus on Qatar Crisis

  • The secretary of state has been meeting with Gulf allies
  • OAS meeting in Cancun is expected to focus on Venezuela

Rex Tillerson

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson canceled a trip to Mexico to try to resolve a crisis in the Persian Gulf sparked by a Saudi-led coalition’s move to isolate Qatar over its ties to Iran and militant groups.

Tillerson had been expected to go to Cancun on Monday for less than 24 hours for a meeting of the Organization of American States, where the main focus is to be Venezuela’s political crisis. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will go instead, the State Department said in a statement Friday.

John Sullivan

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“The Secretary of State will continue his efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East region through in-person meetings and phone conversations with Gulf and regional leaders,” the department said. It said Tillerson has “made more than a dozen phone calls and participated in several in-person meetings.”

The statement marked the first confirmation from the U.S. that Tillerson, who has met with top officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in recent days, is formally trying to mediate a solution to the feud. Shortly after the crisis erupted, President Donald Trump offered Tillerson as a mediator, hoping the secretary could take advantage of ties forged with regional leaders during his years as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp. Kuwait is also trying to broker an end to the dispute.

For a QuickTake on the Saudi-led move against Qatar, click here

The spat began earlier this month when Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic, trade and transport links in a move they said was aimed at isolating Qatar for its support of terrorist groups and Iran. Qatar denies all the charges and accuses Saudi Arabia of seeking to dominate smaller states within the region.

So far, Qatar hasn’t received any demands from Gulf nations, Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani told Qatar TV. A Gulf official with direct knowledge of the matter told Bloomberg on Thursday that Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. were expected to relay to mediators a list of demands soon.

Qatar’s foreign minister said the delay in providing a list “is evidence of the fragility of the basis of the actions against Qatar.”

The flareup in the Gulf puts the U.S. in a difficult position because it is allied with nations on both sides of the dispute. Moreover, Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for the U.S. Central Command, which includes a state-of-the-art air base the Pentagon depends on to target Islamic State.

Tillerson’s efforts have been hindered by mixed messages from the administration.  The secretary of state initially called on Saudi Arabia to ease what he called “the blockade” on June 9, only to have Trump, at a White House news conference hours later, say the move had been the right one.

“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump said in a speech at the White House. “We ask Qatar, and other nations in the region to do more and do it faster.”

The Trump administration’s position was clouded further this week when the Defense Department announced that Qatar would sign a $12 billion deal to buy as many as 36 F-15 jets from the U.S.

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