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Trump rushes into Saudi-Qatari confrontation

06 Jun 2017 15:51 (+01:00 GMT)
Trump rushes into Saudi-Qatari confrontation

Washington, 6 June (Argus) — US president Donald Trump backed Saudi Arabia and its allies in their diplomatic row with Qatar, contradicting his senior Cabinet officials who are working to contain tensions between major Gulf oil and natural gas producers.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain yesterday severed diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar over alleged sponsorship of radical Islamist groups. The State Department declined to endorse those accusations, which Doha rejects.

But Trump today took to his favorite medium — Twitter — to claim that the Saudi-led action is a direct response to his 21 May speech in Riyadh that called on predominantly Muslim countries to do more to combat extremism.

"So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off," Trump wrote. "They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!"

Trump during his 20-21 May visit to Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — to establish a joint "Terrorist Financing Targeting Center." Trump also met Qatar's head of state Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to discuss sales of US military equipment to Doha.

Trump's tweets caught his administration officials by surprise — as did the Saudi-led action. "The president has his own unique ways of communicating with the American people and the world," US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said. "It has served him pretty well, and I do not intend to advise him on how he ought to communicate."

But Tillerson reiterated his call for GCC members to resolve their dispute through talks. "We encourage that they do sit together and find a way to resolve whatever the differences are that have led to this decision."

Tillerson again declined to endorse specific claims against Qatar. "And I think every country in the region has their own obligations they need to live up to, and they have their own challenges to live up to that commitment to terminate support for terrorism, extremism," he said. "I would say that is true of all the GCC countries — they have their own work to do in that regard."

The Pentagon is urging caution as well. Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for the US Central Command, which oversees US military forces in the Middle East.

The crisis comes with Tillerson and US defense secretary Jim Mattis on a trip to Australia and New Zealand. Facing wholesale reorganization and a proposed 31pc budget cut, the State Department is bereft of policy officials and its most senior career diplomat in charge of the Middle East region, Stuart Jones, is stepping down.

Jones just last week said Qatar was a strong partner in combating funding to Islamist groups.

But US government officials in the current and previous administrations in the past decade have repeatedly raised concerns with Doha over that issue, as well as over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Egypt and Palestinian group Hamas.

Qatar is the largest LNG exporter globally. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have restricted access to their ports, banning ships arriving from or going to Qatar. Vessels carrying Qatari flags are also prohibited from docking at UAE and Saudi ports. Passage of Qatari ships through Egypt's Suez Canal zone has not been affected.