US, Kuwait continue mediation over Qatar crisis but resolution to dispute is remote

August 13, 2017
Regional role. People gesture a mural of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah presented as a gift from Qatar. (AFP)

Washington- A month after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson failed to help resolve the Qatar dispute, the Unit­ed States is trying a new round of shuttle diplomacy to end the bitter row between a Saudi-led Arab bloc and Qatar. Although Ku­wait’s mediation efforts have shown signs of progress, Doha’s rivals seem determined not to lift the sanctions imposed on the tiny state before Qa­tar addresses their demands.

Timothy Lenderking, US deputy assistant secretary of state for Gulf affairs, and retired US Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni began their mission August 7 with talks in Ku­wait. They met with the Qatari lead­ership in Doha on August 9 before travelling to the United Arab Emir­ates, which is part of the bloc op­posing Qatar.

Lenderking and Zinni, a former military commander in the region, were also scheduled to visit the oth­er three countries in conflict with Qatar — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt.

Qatar, a small country on a penin­sula in the Gulf, is home to the larg­est US military base in the Middle East while neighbouring Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.

In announcing the visit of the two envoys, Tillerson said it was impor­tant to be in personal contact with officials involved as “there’s only so much you can do with telephone persuasion.”

During his visit in July, Tillerson signed an agreement with Qatar on preventing money flowing to terror­ist groups. The step was designed to convince the Saudi-led quartet that progress was being made but the in­itiative was rejected by Riyadh and the other countries involved.

Qatar denies that it is providing money and support for extremists, although it has played host to Mus­lim Brotherhood figures as well as Hamas and Taliban leaders.

As the two sides in the dispute are not talking directly to each oth­er, one of the main challenges for Lenderking and Zinni is to establish a line of communication. Kuwait has reportedly offered the Saudi-led bloc joint Kuwaiti-US guarantees about Qatar’s future conduct with regard to radical groups.

It was unclear whether that plan was part of the US envoys’ talking points. They “are in the Gulf region this week to engage with the parties involved and support the govern­ment of Kuwait’s mediation efforts,” a State Department official said.

As the crisis seems likely to drag on for a while, Doha has sought ways to circumvent the sanctions it faces and to prepare for the long haul. Cut off from major supply lines by a boycott of the quartet, it has organised deliveries of food and other goods from Turkey and Iran. It intensified ties with Turkey, a re­gional ally, and with the West. Qatar has participated in military exercis­es with Turkey after doing so sepa­rately with France and the United States since the start of the crisis in early June.

The exercises with Turkey re­ceived particular attention. W. Robert Pearson, a former US ambas­sador to Ankara, said Turkey’s de­ployment of soldiers to the region reduced Ankara’s hopes of playing the role of mediator. “The Saudis don’t want the Turkish base in Qatar in any case, and Erdogan weakened his leverage by the timing of his ini­tiatives,” Pearson said.

The Turkish military move seems motivated in part by ideology. “Er­dogan sees Doha as a key Muslim Brotherhood ally and is ready to commit the Turkish state’s military and diplomatic resources to avoid losing one of its last remaining part­ners in the Middle East,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmak­er who works for the Washington think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

In another attempt at overcoming its isolation, Qatar announced that people from 80 countries — only one Arab country (Lebanon) — no longer needed a visa before visit­ing the country. Doha apparently hopes the new measures will help make up for the falling hotel occu­pancy rates since the boycott be­gan in June by Saudi and other Gulf countries, which usually provide about half of the visitors to Qatar. Air traffic with the four Arab coun­tries opposed to Doha represented one-fourth of flights of state-owned Qatar Airways.