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Donald Trump vows to calm Gulf flare-up as Saudis turn screws on Qatar

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-06-2017 Glen Carey

Riyadh/Dubai: The US said it will seek to defuse a growing rift between its energy-rich Gulf allies after Saudi Arabia led a drive to isolate Qatar by cutting off air and sea transport and closing the tiny nation’s only land border.

President Donald Trump wants to “de-escalate” the crisis and is committed to holding talks with all parties, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters Monday. Earlier, the Saudis and three regional allies—the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain—suspended flights and sea travel to Qatar, escalating a week-old row and sending Qatari stocks plunging, though there’s been no immediate impact on Gulf energy exports.

Saudi Arabia accused its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member of supporting a range of violent groups, from proxies of Shiite Muslim Iran to the Sunni militants of Islamic State. Qatar dismissed the charges as baseless, and said the Saudis are seeking to dominate their smaller neighbour.

Some analysts said the pressure may even lead to regime-change in Qatar. The moves are aimed at “forcing a complete change in Qatari policy or creating an environment for leadership change in Doha,” Ayham Kamel and Hani Sabra, analysts at New York-based risk analyst Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed note. “Saudi Arabia and its allies will not accept any solution short of capitulation.”

‘Very destabilizing’

The dispute among some of the world’s richest countries broke out days after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and it wasn’t clear if the US was alerted to the move in advance. The president joined Saudi King Salman in pledging a united front against extremist groups and also against Iranian influence in the Middle East, a move widely seen as endorsing Saudi leadership in the region. Some of Qatar’s policies, such as its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, clash with American priorities; yet the country also hosts a US military base that’s crucial to the fight against Islamic State.

“It’s not in the US’s interest to see the GCC sort of unravel,” Allison Wood, an analyst with Control Risks in Dubai, said. “That would be very destabilizing in a region that’s already very unstable.”

Also Read: Saudi Arabia’s feud with Qatar has 22-year history rooted in gas

Qatar’s population is smaller than Houston’s, but it’s the world’s biggest seller of liquefied natural gas and has a sovereign wealth fund with stakes in global companies from Barclays Plc to Credit Suisse Group. It also exerts regional influence by sponsoring the Al Jazeera television network, which has angered the Saudi bloc with its criticism of autocratic governments—except Qatar’s—and sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt.

After cutting off diplomatic relations with Qatar, the Saudis and their allies moved to shut down transport links.

Carriers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including Etihad Airways and Emirates, said they’ll suspend all flights to and from Qatar’s capital, Doha, starting Tuesday. Some 76 daily flights are likely to be grounded, most of them operated by Qatar Airways, according to scheduling firm OAG. Saudi authorities banned vessels flying the Qatari flag or owned by Qatari companies or individuals, and closed the land border through which Qatar imports food. Qatar’s main stock index tumbled 7.3%, the most since 2009.

The Saudis accused Qatar of supporting “Iranian-backed terrorist groups” operating in the kingdom’s eastern province and Bahrain, as well as “terrorist groups aiming to destabilize the region,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Qatar’s foreign ministry called the accusations “baseless” and said they were part of a plan to “impose guardianship on the state, which in itself is a violation of sovereignty.”

While Qatar maintains diplomatic and economic ties with Iran, it’s not clear how close the two countries are, and none of the statements issued on Monday offered evidence of deep cooperation. Western officials have expressed concerns that Qatar may be backing fundamentalist groups, but they’ve raised similar issues about Saudi Arabia too.

It’s Qatar’s backing for the Brotherhood, which has been more associated with electoral politics than violence in recent years, that’s most sharply divided the two camps and has triggered past arguments between them. Qatar bankrolled a Brotherhood-led government in Egypt that was toppled in 2013; the Saudis and UAE poured money into the military-backed regime that succeeded it. Qatar also hosts leaders of the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.

The other two nations in the six-member GCC, Kuwait and Oman, have so far maintained their diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar. Both countries have shown reluctance in the past to follow Saudi Arabia in adopting a tougher stance against Iran.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stepped into the fray on Monday, saying on Twitter that “coercion” would not lead to a solution. “Neighbours are permanent, geography can’t be changed,” he said. Bloomberg

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