- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2017

Qatar’s foreign minister expressed optimism Thursday that the Trump administration is moving his country’s way in a bitter feud with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as both sides conducted intense lobbying of the U.S. government.

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said Thursday it appeared President Trump was moving closer to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s more moderate approach to the dispute, which threatens to divide key U.S. allies in the Gulf and potentially give Iran a chance to expand its influence. Mr. Trump originally voiced sympathy for complaints by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other states about Qatar’s suspected support for terror groups in the region, but Mr. Tillerson has tried to mediate the feud and has suggested the Saudi demands were too broad and unrealistic.

But Mr. al-Thani remained cautious as to what will happen when the 10-day window to comply with Riyadh’s demands expires.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates abruptly cut diplomatic and economic ties earlier this month while demanding major changes in Qatari foreign policy, from cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran to shutting down the Qatar-based and -financed news network Al Jazeera.

“We are willing to negotiate with any of the blockading countries,” Mr. al-Thani said in remarks at an event sponsored by the Arab Center in Washington. But any deal to end the embargo and blockade would require that all parties involved “respect the sovereignty of Qatar.”

Qatar, a majority Sunni Arab nation like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, has long kept up ties to Shiite Iran, with whom Doha shares a massive natural gas field. It has also preserved relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that supported former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted in a 2013 military coup.

On Thursday, Mr. al-Thani defended Qatar’s record in battling extremism in the region.

“I will put our record [on battling terrorism] against the record of any of the blockading countries,” he said. Iran, he added, “is our neighbor. … We have to maintain ties with them.”

While Doha would like Washington to take a bigger role in getting Saudi Arabia and its allies to the negotiating table, Mr. al-Thani said that Qatar would not use the massive U.S. air base in the country as a bargaining chip with the Trump administration.

Qatar is home to Al Udeid air base, which is not only U.S. Central Command’s Mideast headquarters, it is also the “nerve center” for air campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and at least 17 other nations, according to the Air Force.

“We do not need leverage with the United States” to get Washington to stay involved, Mr. al-Thani said, adding the U.S. could serve as a diplomatic bridge between Riyadh and its allies to convince that Arab bloc to come to the negotiation table. Mr. al-Thani also praised Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker’s proposal to block any future arms sales to any Gulf nations until the Qatar situation is resolved. That move, he added, “will be very helpful in getting all parties to negotiations.”

His comments come days after Doha refused a string of demands issued by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, who instituted the embargo and blockage against Qatar earlier this month.

The demands, according to Mr. al-Thani, were not a realistic effort toward reconciliation but a half-hearted attempt by GCC members to show the region they were making an effort toward ending the crisis. “These demands are an obstacle to a political solution,” he said Thursday.

Saudi Foreign Minster Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, who has also been in Washington this week, showed little sign of moderating the kingdom’s demands, saying Saudi Arabia’s position was “non-negotiable.”

Mr. Tillerson has repeatedly called for cooling tensions and easing the blockade, saying the impasse was having an impact on U.S. military operations in Qatar. Mr. al-Thani said his recent talks with Mr. Tillerson has only reinforced attitudes in Doha that the U.S. will help foster an environment where a deal can be reached.

Qatar is also looking to its European allies to help break the diplomatic impasse in the region, and said Mr. Trump’s moderating stance will prove a benefit.

“We think now he is listening more to his agencies,” especially those at the State Department, to get a better grasp of the situation and its possible implications, Mr. al-Thani said.

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