Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday criticized some of the demands by Saudi Arabia and its allies on Qatar as “very difficult” to meet, and urged the countries to tamp down the rhetoric and start negotiating.
The statement by Tillerson was his first response to a sweeping list of 13 demands leaked to the Associated Press on Friday. The ultimatum gave Qatar 10 days to shut down the Arabic news network Al Jazeera, halt all contact with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, reduce cooperation with Iran and oust Turkish troops from Qatar. In addition, it would be required to undergo monthly checks to ensure it is complying.
The demands were presented by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which had earlier imposed a diplomatic and trade embargo on Qatar, through the Emir of Kuwait, who is mediating the crisis. They do not specify what further action those countries might take if Qatar does not obey.
“While some of the elements will be very difficult for Qatar to meet, there are significant areas which provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to resolution,” Tillerson said in his statement, which urged the parties to sit down and have a conversation about what he called the “requests.”
“We believe our allies and partners are stronger when they are working together towards one goal which we all agree is stopping terrorism and countering extremism,” he said. “Each country involved has something to contribute to that effort. A lowering of rhetoric would also help ease the tension.”
The showdown between Qatar and the Arab nations allied against it began two weeks ago. The anti-Qatar countries claimed Qatar’s royal family has been funding terrorism, but their list of demands suggests they are pressuring Qatar as a way of trying to isolate Iran and suppress media in the region that have been critical of governments throughout the Middle East.
The standoff has been awkward for the United States. Qatar hosts the largest concentration of U.S. military personnel — nearly 11,000 people — in the Middle East. Trump visited Saudi Arabia last month on his first overseas trip and announced a $110 billion deal to sell arms to the country. He has expressed pleasure at the alliance of Arab states, all Sunni, against extremist groups and Iran, which is Shiite and the region’s main rival to Saudi Arabia.
Last week, before the anti-Qatar demands became public, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was unusually blunt in criticizing the group of nations isolating Qatar and effectively dared them to come up with a list of Qatari misdeeds.
Nauert said Washington was “mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public nor to the Qataris the details about the claims that they are making.” The more time goes by, she added, “the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“At this point we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?” The GCC, or Gulf Cooperation Council, includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait as well as Qatar. (Oman is also a member.)
Trump, however, has called the Saudi-led action against Qatar “hard but necessary.”
Nevertheless, Tillerson’s remarks suggest Washington is growing impatient with the bickering, and considers it an obstacle to fighting terrorism and uniting in opposition to Iran.
Though Kuwait is officially mediating the dispute, Tillerson has been actively involved making phone calls to the leaders of each country in an effort to break the impasse. Last week, he canceled a planned trip to Mexico to discuss Venezuela before the Organization of American States so he could call Middle Eastern leaders, instead.