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Mixed messages undercut US role in Qatar dispute

13 Jun 2017 16:09 (+01:00 GMT)
Mixed messages undercut US role in Qatar dispute

Washington, 13 June (Argus) — President Donald Trump's administration is struggling to articulate its position on the rupture of ties between Saudi Arabia and its allies and Qatar, which resulted in a blockade on the world's largest LNG exporter.

The lack of clarity is preventing Washington from acting effectively as a mediator of the dispute between major Gulf oil and natural gas producers, a role traditionally expected of the US administration. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson on 9 June called on Saudi Arabia and other Mideast Gulf Arab states to relax the blockade they imposed on Qatar, citing negative effects on US businesses and military operations. But Trump just an hour later thanked Saudi Arabia for its actions and said he gave his approval before it was taken — contradicting the State Department, which said it had received no advance warning of the action directed at Qatar.

Qatar is not a major oil producer, with its output at 620,000 b/d in May, but it is the largest LNG exporter globally. ExxonMobil is a stakeholder in Qatar's 77mn t/yr Ras Laffan LNG facility. And Qatar hosts hosts the regional headquarters of the US Central Command, which oversees US military forces in the Middle East, and a major US air base that is used for operations against Isis.

The White House National Security Council on 10 June tried to clarify Trump's remarks, denying "that there is daylight between the president and the secretary of state." The White House backs calls for easing of the blockade on Qatar, a senior administration official in charge of national security said.

But Trump yesterday again endorsed the Saudi line on Qatar, telling his Cabinet members that "one of the big things that we did — and you are seeing it now with Qatar and all of the things that are actually going on in a very positive fashion — we are stopping the funding of terrorism."

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain on 5 June severed diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar, accusing that country of sponsoring radical Islamist groups. Doha rejects the accusation.

Trump last week in conversations with the heads of state of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt offered his mediation services. The administration now clarifies that Washington merely will give backing to Kuwait's ongoing mediation offer. A summit in Washington is "not something that is being actively planned right now, but the offer is out there if countries want to go that route," the White House said.

The port authority of Fujairah in the UAE will hold a meeting tomorrow to discuss new regulations regarding access of non-Qatari owned or flagged vessels to the port and its anchorage. Marine fuel suppliers and shipping agents have asked for clarification and assurances following yesterday's amendment by the port, which appeared to have eased restrictions on non-Qatari owned or flagged vessels bunkering or co-loading at the port even if they are heading to or from Qatar.

"There is no blockade of Qatar. Qatar is free, the airports are open, the ports are open," Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said today during a meeting with Tillerson. "The sea ports of Qatar are open, they can move in and out, they just cannot use our territorial waters," al-Jubeir said. "So technically, this is not a blockade."

The administration will not complete a reorganization of the State Department until early next year, Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The reorganization will prevent the administration from filling senior policy positions left vacant after Trump took office in January.