Middle East envoys scrambled Tuesday to mediate a diplomatic rupture between Qatar and a powerful Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia even as President Donald Trump endorsed the pressure on Qatar as a step toward blocking militant funding.
The crisis outreach sought to cool tensions after Qatar’s Persian Gulf neighbors – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – were joined by Egypt and smaller nations on Monday to cut ties with Qatar, claiming it supports terrorism across the region.
The eruption of the long-simmering disputes shocked the region and has threatened the deeply intertwined regional trade links and air routes.
Trump — who visited Saudi Arabia last month — posted Twitter messages endorsing the Saudi-led isolation of Qatar as an important step to squeeze suspected militant funding networks.
Trump said “all reference pointed to Qatar” as a financial pathway for extremists. But Trump’s stance could also complicate mediation efforts trying to gain momentum.
Kuwait took the lead in trying to broker dialogue. The country’s emir, Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, headed to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Salman. On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also offered to try to close a regional fissure, which erupted less than three weeks after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
Small but influential Qatar has long been at odds with some of the its regional partners for support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen by Saudi Arabia and other nations as a threat to the network of ruling monarchs and others across the region.
Qatar also had flexed its political influence by using its energy wealth to become a key patron of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and, in the mid-1990s, launch the Al Jazeera network, which has wide reach through the Arab-speaking world.
Trump used his visit to Riyadh last month to urge Arab states to wage wider crack downs on militant groups, including funding channels. But Trump’s message of support to Saudi leaders also may have encouraged the Arab moves against Qatar, which hosts important U.S. military logistics sites and a major air base.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
Trump later posted a tweet saying the meeting with Saudi’s King Salman and others from across the Muslim world was “already paying off.”
In Qatar – which depends on sea routes and its land border with Saudi Arabia for nearly all its consumer goods – worried residents emptied store shelves and stocked up on other key supplies.
Qatar Airways, a major international carrier, was forced to redirect routes as it faces possible limits on airspace passage from the countries that broke ties.
U.S. officials who monitor terrorist funding have said that Gulf governments have all become vigilant about official support for terror groups and virtually eliminated it, although some money still flows to terror groups from individuals, primarily in Kuwait and to a lesser extent from Qatar.
Senior administration officials, hailing what they called a successful meeting between Trump and the Gulf Cooperation Council two weeks ago, said all six members – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman – had recognized that individual funding remains a problem and pledged to crack down on it.
But Saudi Arabia also has come under scrutiny for indirectly backing militant networks through groups promoting the Saudi’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
In response to the Kuwaiti leader’s urging, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, agreed to postpone a speech about the crisis to await the result of the mediation, the peninsula nation’s foreign minister told Al Jazeera.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, spoke with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar about resolving the dispute. Turkey enjoys good relations with the parties in the conflict.
“President Erdogan has initiated diplomatic effort to resolve this dispute between friends and brothers in line with the shirt of the holy month of Ramadan,” said presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin in a statement.
Flights to Qatar by the four Arab countries have been canceled, as have all land and sea links, putting pressure on Qatari exports, many of which transit through ports in the UAE.
Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas, normally offloads its cargo in the UAE to be transferred on larger ships. The same with its exports of aluminum.
Many Qatari flights transit through the neighboring countries as well. On Monday night, Qatar airways suspended all its flights to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, the company reported on its website.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia revoked the operating license of the Qatari carrier, formally preventing it from landing and flying inside the kingdom, according to Saudi state media. The government also ordered all the airline’s offices in nine cities to close within 48 hours and also withdrew licenses to its employees in the country.
The airlines, which has 40,000 employees, is wholly owned by the Qatari government.
So far, Qatar Airways planes have been forced to take more indirect routes, as they can no longer fly over the airspace of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. There were reports that at least 15 Qatar Airways flights had to fly over war-torn Somalia to reach their destinations.
Bahrain, as of Tuesday, was allowing Qatar Airways to fly through its airspace on a single air route, opening it heavy air traffic congestion. If a complete shut down occurs, it could have a devastating impact on the carrier, and Qatar’s economy, since the nation is largely surrounded by Bahrain’s airspace.
Meanwhile, banks from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE are also holding off on dealings with Qatar putting further pressure on its currency.
The feud, the most serious in decades among the Persian Gulf monarchies, has been simmering for years as Qatar has sought to project its influence across the region, including backing the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist fighters in Libya and Syria. But the flaring tensions raised fears of another destabilizing conflict in a region already grappling with three civil wars and Islamist militant insurgencies on several fronts.
Qatar has also drawn the ire of Arab neighbors for its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera television channel, which hosts frank discussions of politics in the region while amplifying Qatar’s pro-Islamist views.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Kareem Fahim, Paul Schemm