Saudi Demands of Qatar Test for Tillerson’s Gulf Strategy

  • ‘We believe it is a family issue’ in the region, Spicer says
  • List of demands is at least a starting point, an official says

The Qatari side of the Abu Samrah border crossing with Saudi Arabia on June 23, 2017.

Photographer: Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted this week that Saudi Arabia spell out exactly what Qatar must do to end the diplomatic and economic isolation its neighbors imposed. Now the Saudis have answered, and the results probably aren’t what the top U.S. diplomat had in mind.

The 13 Saudi demands include shutting the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV network, cutting back diplomatic ties with Iran, severing relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and ending Turkey’s military presence in Qatar, according to a Gulf official who confirmed the document. Qatar is still gauging its response, but the list appears to be far from the “reasonable and actionable” proposals that Tillerson had called for on June 21.

The Trump White House views the roster of demands as at least a starting point for further talks, according to an administration official. The U.S. will facilitate further talks -- Tillerson has participated in dozens of phone calls and meetings -- but wants the countries involved to solve the crisis without direct American mediation, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing diplomatic initiatives.

“We believe it is a family issue” among the Mideast neighbors, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Friday. “This is something they want to, and should, work out for themselves.”

Qatar has 10 days to respond to the list, which it received overnight from Kuwait, the Gulf official said. The demands were offered as a basis of talks and not an ultimatum, according to the official, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Qatar Reaction

But Sheikh Saif Al Thani, director of Qatar’s government communications office, said the Saudi requirements don’t meet the criteria set out by the U.S. and U.K. governments for reasonable and realistic measures. He said they are being formally reviewed “out of respect for our brothers in Kuwait” and that an official response will come from the ministry of foreign affairs.

“This list of demands confirms what Qatar has said from the beginning – the illegal blockade has nothing to do with combating terrorism, it is about limiting Qatar’s sovereignty, and outsourcing our foreign policy,” he said in an emailed statement.

The U.S. challenge will be to gauge how ready Saudi Arabia and its allies are for real negotiations with Qatar, or whether they simply want to inflict maximum economic damage on the tiny country, and get to discussions later.

‘Aggressive Stance’

“It’s a very aggressive stance, a very aggressive opening position by the Saudi alliance and I think one meant to show to Qatar that they’re digging in for the long haul,” said Amir Handjani, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. “They want to give the maximum amount of time for Qatar to feel economic pain.”

The feud began earlier this month when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt abruptly cut ties. Qatar denies accusations it supports terrorism and countered that Saudi Arabia is seeking to dominate smaller states within the region.

Read Why the Qatar Crisis Defies a Rapid Resolution

While Kuwait is playing a more formal role as mediator, the showdown between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition is proving a crucial test for Tillerson: the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive officer knows all the key players thanks to his background making oil deals around the world, including with Middle East rulers. He was brought on as secretary of state in part for those relationships.

Tillerson’s efforts to encourage a resolution has been helped in recent days by President Donald Trump staying quiet after earlier comments undercut his secretary of state.

Conflicting Messages

After Tillerson pressed all sides to resolve the dispute, the president praised Saudi Arabia’s move on Twitter, citing Qatar’s history of “funding Radical Ideology.” On June 9, Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia to ease what he called its “blockade,” only to have Trump, at a White House news conference hours later, say the move had been the right one. At the same time, the Defense Department made clear the importance of its base in Qatar, from which the U.S. conducts its air operations against Islamic State.

“The Saudis and the Emiratis certainly look like they feel empowered by Trump, and the Qataris look like they also felt empowered by the Defense Department,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a fellow who specializes in U.S.-Gulf relations at the Washington Institute. She said that only increased “the chance that both sides of the conflict will continue to dig in their heels.”

Now Tillerson is taking the lead. On Tuesday, his spokeswoman said the U.S. was “mystified” about why the coalition hadn’t listed its demands of the tiny nation, saying the U.S. suspected that the dispute was more about long-simmering tensions between them and not focused on Qatar’s funding of terrorism.

The Saudi demands were “a halfhearted response to U.S. pressure,” said Rob Malley, who coordinated Middle East policy for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “The real question is if whether it’s an opening gambit starting from a maximalist position or whether from Saudi Arabia’s and the Emirates’ point of view, it’s not time to negotiate.”

Qatar’s foreign minister said on June 19 that his country wouldn’t bargain away what it sees as its sovereign rights and called on the Saudi alliance to conduct negotiations in a “civilized way,” after first lifting the blockade. He said Qataris were united behind their emir.

The situation has only become more complex in recent days, with the U.S. and Qatar signing a deal last week to sell as many as 36 F-15 fighter jets to Qatar. And on Thursday, Qatar’s state-backed airline, Qatar Airways Ltd., announced it would seek to buy a stake of as much 10 percent in American Airlines Group Ltd. American’s CEO scoffed at the move as “puzzling at best and concerning at worst.”

Read How American Airlines Rebuffed Qatar’s Overture

“What Qatar is saying with the American deal is ‘we’ve got cards to play too,”’ said Amir Handjani, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The same way Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. use their influence, Qatar can do the same. This is a reminder to the U.S. -- you should think twice before taking sides on this.”

— With assistance by Mohammed Sergie, and Fiona MacDonald

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