The four Arab countries isolating Qatar have reiterated their call for Doha to agree to a framework of six broad “principles” which they say will set the parameters for future talks on how the crisis is resolved.
The emphasis on these principles — rather than the 13 specific demands originally issued to Qatar — could indicate that the quartet is now more willing to engage in the mediation process led by Kuwait and backed by the United States, United Nations and European powers.
“I don't see this as a softening of the quartet's position on Qatar per se, as much as a measure taken to restart the negotiation process,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi analyst of Gulf politics and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
“It is clear that the boycotting nations are prepared to play the long game with Qatar, but there is no doubt that a speedy resolution of the crisis will be in everyone's interest,” he said. “These six principles are best viewed as an effort to set the foundation for meaningful negotiation process.”
Officials from the four countries boycotting Qatar — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt — spoke to journalists at the United Nations on Tuesday, and maintained that they still expect Doha to change what they say is its support for extremist groups across the region.
“Of course we are all for compromise, but there will be no compromise on these six principles,” said Abdallah Al Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador.
He added that it “should be easy” for Qatar to agree to the six principles, which are similar to the Riyadh agreements signed by the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in 2013 and 2014. One of the principles is an explicit call for Doha to abide by those agreements.
Implementation and monitoring of any mechanisms agreed upon within the six categories is “essential”, Mr Al Mouallimi said. The “tactics” and “tools” for implementation are the grounds for negotiation, he added. “That’s where we can have discussion and compromise.”
The six broader principles were first announced in Cairo on July 5 after the foreign ministers of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain met there to determine their response to Doha’s refusal to meet the original 13 demands. Qatar rejected those demands — which were criticised by mediators from the US and elsewhere — as a violation of its sovereignty.
At the UN in New York on Tuesday, diplomats from the four countries confirmed that the six broader principles — which do not have a deadline — had superseded the original demands. Those included the full closure of Al Jazeera and other Qatar-backed news outlets which the quartet alleged spread extremist views and provided platforms for dissidents, and the shutting down of a permanent Turkish military base in Qatar.
The four countries gave a joint statement in Cairo, stating that the six principles are:
“1. Commitment to combat extremism and terrorism in all its forms and to prevent their financing or the provision of safe havens.
2. Prohibiting all acts of incitement and all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred and violence.
3. Full commitment to Riyadh Agreement 2013 and the supplementary agreement and its executive mechanism for 2014 within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for Arab States.
4. Commitment to all the outcomes of the Arab-Islamic-US Summit held in Riyadh in May 2017.
5. To refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of States and from supporting illegal entities.
6. The responsibility of all States of international community to confront all forms of extremism and terrorism as a threat to international peace and security.”
“We’re never going back to the status quo,” UAE Ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh said during the briefing on Tuesday. “That needs to be understood by the Qataris.”
Tuesday's reiteration of the six principles by the quartet diplomats came a week after US secretary of state Rex Tillerson spent two days shuttling between the two sides in the dispute and mediator Kuwait. In Doha, he signed a bilateral agreement with Qatar on enhanced measures to close off private funding for terrorist groups and greater monitoring — a key original demand of the quartet. Despite this, officials from the four countries said last week the agreement was not sufficient to meet their demands and that they doubted Qatar would implement it.
But at the UN on Tuesday, Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Cooperation, said the US deal with Qatar was “an excellent step” and that “we’d like to see more of that”, adding: “We’d like to see stronger measures taken and stronger commitment made to address that.”
Ms Al Hashimy also said that all five countries involved in the dispute were important partners of Washington.
“We believe that the Americans have a very constructive and a very important role to play in hopefully creating a peaceful resolution,” she added.
The US administration — if not the White House itself, which has sent mixed messages — has appeared to increase pressure on the countries isolating Qatar to find a solution. Both the US secretaries of state and defence believe the Qatar crisis is distracting from the key objectives of fighting ISIL and confronting Iran in the region. In recent days, US intelligence officials have criticised the UAE in particular over allegations that it orchestrated a hack against Qatar, which precipitated the crisis. UAE officials deny the allegations.
The perceptible shift in tone by the quartet officials on Tuesday may be due to pressure from Washington or tactical moves towards greater flexibility from within the boycotting countries themselves, analysts said.
“It wouldn’t surprise me that there are more voices in all of these countries calling for a more pragmatic step back from the demands which were so maximalist and presented in such a way that makes it hard for Qatar to accept,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East policy expert at the Center for American Progress think tank in Washington.
But even a greater willingness to appear flexible by either side does not mean that a breakthrough in resolving the crisis is imminent, he added.
“I’d be surprised if you see a full rapprochement here. It may just be a continued distancing or just a tamping down of the media war but not a real attempt to bring the GCC together that includes Qatar.”
On Monday, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the UAE was prepared for the current situation to extend indefinitely, even if there is no major escalation of pressure on Qatar.
Meanwhile, at the UN, Ms Al Hashimy said the ball was now in Qatar’s court.
“Our aim is to reach a diplomatic solution,” Mr Al Mouallimi added, saying that the four countries hope Qatar “will come around”.