Escalation will benefit no one, Gargash tells Qatar

UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs also questions Doha's attempts to bring in "external parties" amid dispute with fellow Gulf nations over its policies.

ABU DHABI // The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs called for Qatar to abandon its “stubbornness” on Thursday, after Turkey accelerated plans to send troops to Qatar and Doha struck a defiant tone.

“We call for reason and wisdom to prevail over stubbornness, escalation will benefit no one and taking the protection of external parties is no solution, the only solution is a new, transparent stance,” Dr Anwar Gargash said.

He also called on Qatar to to “change its course”, in a series of messages on Twitter late on Thursday, the fourth day of an escalating crisis within the GCC over Doha’s policies.

Earlier in the day, the Qatari foreign minister insisted the country would not be pressured into change.

“No one has the right to intervene in our foreign policy,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said.

He insisted that despite a partial blockade by its neighbours, Qatar could survive “forever”, and ruled out “a military solution as an option” to end the most serious rift in the GCC’s history.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties and land, sea and air links to Qatar on Monday over its support for Islamist groups and refusal to fully support their regional policies. Qatar has denied those charges.

On Thursday, the UAE added to the raft of measures to isolate Qatar. The General Civil Aviation Authority announced it had “closed the airspace for all air traffic to and from Doha until further notice”.

At the same time, Bahrain joined the UAE in outlawing expressions of sympathy for Qatar on social media.

“Any expression of sympathy with the government of Qatar or opposition to the measures taken by the government of Bahrain, whether through social media, Twitter or any other form of communication, is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine,” Bahrain’s interior ministry said.

The country’s foreign minister also repeated Riyadh’s demands that Qatar change the nature of its relationship with Iran and end support for what he called “terrorist organisations”.

A number of smaller countries allied with Saudi Arabia have joined in taking steps to varying degrees against Qatar, and on Thursday Chad announced that it had recalled its ambassador to Doha.

The crisis has also drawn in global and regional powers, which may pave the way for a deeper mediation process and stave off for now the ratcheting up further of steps targeting Qatar.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday joined international calls to resolve tensions between Qatar and other Gulf Arab states, and said he was ready to support any diplomatic efforts “if desired by all parties”.

US president Donald Trump spoke on the phone with the leaders of Saudi, the UAE and Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Wednesday, and offered to host a mediation summit at the White House.

While speaking with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Mr Trump reiterated “the importance of maintaining a united Gulf Cooperation Council to promote regional stability, but never at the expense of eliminating funding for radical extremism or defeating terrorism”.

It was an about-turn from Tuesday when the US president backed the Saudi-UAE position fully, saying on Twitter that they may even bring an end to terrorism.

The GCC as a bloc is crucial to Mr Trump’s Middle East goals of creating an Arab force to fight terrorism and confront Iran. Qatar also hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, which is the US Central Command’s forward headquarters running all operations in the region, staffed by around 10,000 troops. The US military considers it a strategic interest not to concentrate its regional facilities in one country or axis.

For Qatar, which has a small military and is vulnerable to rivals and enemies in the region, the Al Udeid airbase is the cornerstone of its national security and it is notionally meant to serve as a strategic deterrent.

Qatari officials had reportedly placed frantic calls to US counterparts after Mr Trump posted his tweets, questioning the countries’ alliance. But they were apparently relieved by the walking back of Mr Trump’s tweets, after he was briefed by his national security staff.

“We don’t see that he’s pointing fingers at Qatar,” Qatar’s ambassador to Washington, Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani said. “Our relationship with the US speaks for itself.”

Qatar has made itself an invaluable ally for a number of countries around the world through its supply of natural gas, and also strategically allied itself with Turkey, whose government has coordinated with Doha on support for Muslim Brotherhood groups across the region and rebels in Syria.

It has also become closer to Moscow, even as they support opposing sides in the Syrian war and are also competitors in the gas market.

Russia and Turkey have inserted themselves in the GCC crisis, with Ankara fast-tracking plans to send more troops to its new permanent military base in Qatar. Turkish officials have given conflicting statements since the base was constructed in 2014, but up to 3,000 troops could soon be stationed there, giving Qatar another deterrent lever.

Turkey has also sought to rebuild frayed ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over the past year, and did not openly side with Qatar as tensions erupted three weeks ago. But Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday he wanted “to clearly say that we disapprove of the sanctions on Qatar”.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is set to meet with his Qatari counterpart in Moscow on Saturday, and Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke with King Salman and Egypt’s president earlier in the week.

Iran’s foreign minister has also has also spoken with Qatari officials and met his Turkish counterpart in Ankara. The efforts by these countries on Qatar’s behalf has raised questions about the future possibility of Doha aligning more closely with them and edging away from the GCC and US.

On Thursday, Egypt urged the UN Security Council to launch an investigation into accusations that Qatar paid a ransom of up to $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) “to a terrorist group active in Iraq” to release kidnapped members of its royal family.

The reported payment to Iranian-backed militias and Al Qaeda-linked militants has been pointed to as the final straw for Riyadh that triggered the unprecedented measures.

“This violation of the Security Council resolutions, if proved correct, shall definitely have a negative bearing on counter-terrorism efforts on the ground,” senior Egyptian UN diplomat Ihab Moustafa Awad Moustafa told the council.

Qatar has denied trying to pay ransom money to secure the release of 26 Qataris, including members of the country’s ruling royal family, abducted in Iraq by unidentified gunmen.

Also on Thursday, the Qatari news network Al Jazeera claimed it was under a wide-scale cyber attack that targeted “all systems”.

“Al Jazeera Media Network under cyber attack on all systems, websites & social media platforms,” Al Jazeera said on Twitter.

* with additional reporting from Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse