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Qatar accuses Saudi Arabia of 'clear aggression' as confrontation escalates

Report suggests Saudi Arabia is chief promoter of Islamist extremism in Britain 

Kim Sengupta
Thursday 06 July 2017 09:09 BST
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Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani
Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (Reuters)

The bitter confrontation between Qatar and a Saudi-led coalition shows no sign of ending, and looks set to escalate, with neither side seemingly prepared to back down amid angry accusations and recriminations.

With tension rising between the two sides – both considered staunch allies of the West – Qatar’s foreign minister accused its Sunni neighbours of “clear aggression” and enforcing an “illegal blockade” to “try to force us to surrender our sovereignty”.

That was something “we’ll never accept,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, with his country preparing to cope with a prolonged crisis.

Mr al-Thani, who described the Saudi-led action as “unprovoked, unjustified and unwarranted,” seemed doubtful that the situation would be resolved by the time Qatar hosts the football World Cup in 2022. “Even if the blockade is lifted, we have to rely on ourselves and ensure we deliver a World Cup that is attractive to the world,” he said.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have presented a list of 13 demands to Qatar, including ending its alleged “support for terrorism,” shutting down the satellite television station Al-Jazeera and other media outlets, downgrading relations with Iran, ending the presence of Turkish troops in Qatar, cutting links with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and paying compensation to “victims of terrorism”.

Qatar was given a deadline until last Monday to accept the demands. Doha rejected them, stressing that many of them were based on fabricated assertions. The deadline was extended until Wednesday while another of the Gulf States, Kuwait, attempted to mediate.

A Qatari response to the charges has been presented to Saudi-led coalition which is holding a meeting in Cairo. The group stated that the punitive measures against Qatar will continue because of the “negative reaction” of Doha which lacked “understanding of the seriousness and gravity of the situation”.

Mr al-Thani was speaking at think tank Chatham House in London, on the day that a report was published stating that Saudi Arabia was the chief promoter of Islamist extremism in Britain. The Henry Jackson Society said there was a “clear and growing link” between Islamist organisations receiving funding from the Kingdom, and hate preachers promoting jihad and terrorism.

Theresa May’s government, meanwhile, is refusing to publish a second report which is also said to show Saudi links to violent Islam.

Mr al-Thani said that the attempts to falsely link Qatar to terrorism by the Saudis “were clearly designed to create an anti-Qatar sentiment in the West”. But, he continued “there is an understanding in European capitals that the blockade is illegal”.

The Qataris want the EU and the UK to ask Washington to rein in the Saudis. But the imbroglio may not even have started had it not been for Donald Trump.

UAE: Diplomacy will be given 'one or two more chances' before they 'part ways' with Qatar

The hostility felt by the Saudis and their cohort towards Qatar is nothing new, but it had been kept in check by a firm line from previous US administrations. But the aggressive rhetoric of Mr Trump during an arms selling trip to Riyadh, including threats against Iran, emboldened the Saudis to make the aggressive moves.

American policy on the dispute appears to be in something of a state of flux. Mr Trump declared his support for the sanctions almost immediately after they were announced and castigated Qatar.

But his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and Defence Secretary General James Mattis, are said to be aghast at what is happening. US military operations in the Middle East are run from the Al- Udaid airbase in Qatar. They see the country not as an accomplice of terrorism, but a vital ally against it. The people who will benefit from this Sunni schism, they point out, are the Iranians.

Gen Mattis and Mr Tillerson were in Sydney at the time of the Saudi announcement, clearing up after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific partnership and the Paris climate accord. They were, say their aides, “blindsided” by the White House’s partisan stance.

Mr Tillerson became convinced that Mr Trump’s statements were really coming from the UAE ambassador to Washington, Youssef Al Otaiba, who has cultivated the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

A “close associate” of the Secretary of State told the media: “Rex put two and two together and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid (Kushner) was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters… What a mess!”

Gen Mattis, too, was authorising people to speak on his behalf. One senior American military officer commented: “Every time we have asked the Qataris for something they have said ‘yes’. They have been absolutely first rate on Isis. The Saudis, on the other hand, have been nothing but trouble, in Yemen especially. Yemen has been a disaster, a stain – and now there is this going on.”

General David Petraeus, the former head of the US military, pointed out that the Saudis had claimed that Qatar was backing terrorism by hosting Hamas and the Taliban, when in fact Doha had invited the two groups to come at the request of the US.

Six days after Mr Trump’s public support for the Saudis in the dispute, Gen Mattis met with Qatari defence minister Khalid al-Attiyah to sign the agreement to ship the F-35 warplanes. Officials in Mr Tillerson’s State Department privately encouraged the Qataris to put forward their own demands to the Saudi alliance.

Turkey has offered to send more troops to protect Qatar: the Iranians have flown in supplies to counter the blockade. But, at the end, the outcome of this stand-off in the Gulf may well depend to a large extent on what happens in the stand-off in the administration of Donald Trump.

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