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Tough Demands on Qatar Unlikely to Resolve Diplomatic Fight

Tough Demands on Qatar Unlikely to Resolve Diplomatic Fight

There’s finally some movement in the standoff between Arab countries and Qatar — but probably not in the direction U.S. officials were hoping.

Late Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt — which broke off relations with Qatar June 5 — have a list of tough demands for Doha to end the impasse. They include shuttering the government-funded media outlet Al Jazeera, cutting ties with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and open itself up to be audited, presumably for ties to terrorist organizations. The list also demands that Qatar align itself militarily, politically, socially, and economically with other Gulf States.

The United States was hoping the demands might move crisis resolution along. But the list of thirteen points, which would require a major reversal in Qatari policy, could well have the opposite effect.

The U.S. State Department has been urging a “reasonable” solution to the diplomatic crisis. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was aware a list had been prepared. “We hope the list of demands will soon be presented to Qatar and will be reasonable and actionable,” he said. “We support the Kuwaiti mediation effort and look forward to this matter moving toward a resolution.”

But the conditions, as reported by AP, look anything but reasonable from Qatar’s point of view.

The crisis began on June 5, when a handful of Arab states broke ties with Qatar, a Gulf neighbor who has long taken a contrary tack on foreign affairs, propping up Islamist governments in North Africa, seeming to supporting the Muslim Brotherhood abroad, and enjoying cordial ties with Iran.

Qatar counters it has the right to decide what civic institutions it funds (i.e. Al Jazeera) and how to chart its own foreign policy.

“We are a sovereign country. We have the right to choose the way we move forward. Their claims are nothing relating to fighting terrorism,” Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, told Foreign Policy hours before the list was reported.

He also said that Qatar doesn’t support the Muslim Brotherhood, contrary to charges made by its Gulf neighbors, but doesn’t want to demonize the group, either.

“We share, we understand, the challenges, but we have a different view on addressing them.” But, he said, the Muslim Brotherhood is “all over the Arab world. Do we take 50 million people and put them on terrorist lists?”

And as for relations with Iran, which is engaged in a regional power struggle with Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has a simple explanation.

“I can tell you why we have relations with Iran. Iran and Qatar share the single largest gas field in the world,” al Thani said. Qatar is a major natural gas supplier for many neighbors and for European countries.

Since the crisis began in early June, it has escalated. The United Arab Emirates made the expression of sympathy toward Qatar punishable by law. Saudi Arabia deported 15,000 Qatari camels grazing in its territory. Qatar Airways was blocked from entering Saudi, Egyptian, Emirati, and Bahraini airspace. Food exports to Qatar were stopped at the border.

The U.S. reaction has been confusing. In a series of tweets, President Donald Trump seemed to take credit for and applauded the moves against Qatar, which is home to the main U.S. airbase in the region. Meanwhile, the State Department urged Gulf states to move things along and resolve the situation.

The list of demands reportedly drawn up took almost three weeks to draft. Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington, said earlier this month that the demands were taking so long to draft because “there are four countries involved.” He flagged some of the steps that the countries were agreed that Qatar must take, including “expelling terrorists” and “shutting down or reversing media.”

Otaiba suggested one explanation for the divergent U.S. responses to the crisis: Different approaches in the White House and the State Department. Trump, Otaiba said, is most concerned with “cutting off terror finance.” But Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, he said, want to ensure operations at al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the launchpad for the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In Doha, officials think the Saudis, Bahrainis, and Emiratis misled the neophyte White House by claiming that it’s all about finding a better way to battle terrorism, al Thani said.

“What the others have done is misled the United States, made it seem like [the rift] is an issue about terrorism,” he said.

 Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt did not immediately respond to request for comment on this point.

“Feel free to ask any officials from the [United States] about terrorist funding coming out of Qatar,” Otaiba told FP by phone Friday.

And Qatari officials believe the demands will speak for themselves, in terms of the Gulf states’ seriousness about finding a way out of the impasse.

“The international community,” al Thani told FP, will “be able to assess if they are ridiculous or they have reason.”

This article was updated on Friday, June 23 at 6:34 p.m. to include comments from the UAE ambassador.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images