Tillerson meets Arab ministers over Qatar boycott

Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held talks Wednesday with four Arab states boycotting Qatar as part of a round of intense shuttle diplomacy aimed at resolving the regional crisis.

Tillerson flew into Saudi Arabia where he met King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country leads a four-state alliance that has cut ties with Qatar over accusations it supports extremism.

The United States, a longtime ally of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, has given mixed signals about its policy on the Gulf crisis.

While President Donald Trump welcomed the Arab states' decision to sever air and land links to their gas-rich neighbour, the State Department has taken a more neutral position and Tillerson is seeking to broker a diplomatic solution.

The crisis has presented Tillerson, well known in the Gulf from his former role as chief of energy giant ExxonMobil, with his first big challenge as Washington's top diplomat.

In a setback to his efforts, the four Arab states on Tuesday dismissed a counter-terrorism deal signed between Qatar and the United States that day as "insufficient".

But on Wednesday Tillerson underscored the shared mutual interests between the United States and Saudi Arabia notably in the areas of "security, stability... and economic prosperity".

Speaking after meeting with the Saudi crown prince, the king's son and a highly influential figure in regional politics, Tillerson stressed the two countries shared a "strong partnership".

The secretary of state also met the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in an attempt to mend fences between the crucial US allies.

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.

While Saudi Arabia is a key US ally, Qatar is home to the US military's largest air base in the region, Al-Udeid. Rival Bahrain houses the US Navy Fifth Fleet.

On Tuesday, after a stop in regional mediator Kuwait, Tillerson travelled to Doha where he described Qatar as being "reasonable" in its dispute with the four states.

He also signed a deal which he said "lays out a series of steps the two countries will take over the coming months and years to interrupt and disable terror financing flows and intensify counter-terrorism activities globally."

The deal meant Qatar was "the first to respond" to Trump's call at a summit in Riyadh in May "to stop the funding of terrorism", Tillerson said, suggesting such deals could be signed with the other Arab states as a step toward ending the crisis.

- 'Insufficient' step -

But Tuesday's initiative was dismissed as "insufficient" by the Saudi-led bloc.

Commitments made by Qatari authorities "cannot be trusted," said a joint statement published by Saudi state news agency SPA.

The bloc has issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar including closing broadcast giant Al-Jazeera, downgrading ties to Iran and shutting a Turkish military base in the emirate.

Iran, Saudi Arabia's main arch-rival, has offered to export food to Qatar and on Wednesday announced it was boosting ties with the Gulf state of Oman.

Oman has maintained ties with Qatar and joined the Kuwaiti and US-led crisis talks this week.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain on June 5 announced sanctions, effective immediately, against Qatar over accusations Doha supported Islamist extremism and was too close to Iran.

They severed all diplomatic ties, suspended transport links with Doha and ordered all Qataris to return home within 14 days.

Qatar refused to comply with the ultimatum and has consistently denied accusations of ties to Islamist groups.

- The fight for Al-Jazeera -

UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on June 30 said the demand to close Al-Jazeera represented "an unacceptable attack on the right to freedom of expression and opinion," prompting a harsh response from the United Arab Emirates.

In a letter to the rights chief, UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash accused Al-Jazeera of anti-Semitism and inciting viewers to discrimination and violence.

The letter lists the broadcasting of "sermons by the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in which he praised Hitler, described the Holocaust as 'divine punishment'" and the regular airing of the speeches of slain Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and others as examples of hatred.

Tillerson's visit is the latest in a series by officials to the region, including UN diplomats and the foreign ministers of Germany and Britain, to try to resolve the row.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will visit the Gulf this weekend, with stops in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.

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