Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on Sunday that Qatar’s calls to “internationalise” the management of holy sites in Mecca and Medina was a declaration of war.
"Qatar's request to internationalise the holy sites is something we consider an aggressive act and a declaration of war against Saudi Arabia,” Adel Al Jubeir told Al Arabiya.
“Saudi Arabia reserves the right to respond to any party working in the field of internationalisation of the holy sites."
Mr Al Jubeir appeared to be referring to a statement on Saturday by Qatar’s National Human Rights Commission which said Qataris had been told by Saudi Haj authorities that they could only enter the kingdom through designated airports and must fly from Doha, restrictions it termed a “violation of international laws”.
The Qatari body did not appear to directly call for international management of the holy sites, as Iran’s supreme leader did last year after a dispute over Haj visas for pilgrims. But suggestions by Qatari media or other figures about the “internationalisation” of Haj management are highly inflammatory, not only for Riyadh but Saudi citizens as well.
“Such things are usually said by the Iranians and whoever speaks this way is following the Iranian example,” Bahrain’s foreign minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said in Manama after a meeting of the four countries isolating Qatar over what they say is its support for terrorist groups and extremism. “This is not acceptable.”
Speaking after the talks by the four foreign ministers, Mr Al Jubeir said the kingdom “welcomes all Muslims from around the world who visit the country for their pilgrimage”.
He said the Qatari statement “aims to sway people’s attention from the core issue at the heart of this crisis — its support and funding of terrorism, and a rhetoric that aims to spread hatred and sedition and its interference in the internal affairs of other countries — it is politicising Haj and that is not acceptable.”
The meeting in Manama was the second held by the quartet this month and was aimed at agreeing on what next steps to take after Doha’s rejection of their initial demands.
At a joint press conference held after the talks, the quartet officials said that they are ready to negotiate with Qatar, but only over the implementation of their original 13 demands and the six broader principles that many observers believed had replaced the specific demands to allow for more diplomatic flexibility.
The 13 demands on Doha include dropping its support for Islamist groups, closing the Turkish military base on its soil and shutting down media outlets it finances.
“When we are talking about dialogue, the six principles and 13 demands presented by the quartet are not subject to negotiation, there should be no negotiation when it comes to countering terrorism,” Mr Al Jubeir said at the press conference.
The quartet did not, however, announce any additional economic isolation measures to increase pressure on Doha.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said that “there are several measures that we can take towards Qatar … within the frame of international law”. UAE officials have said they will not take steps that force international companies to choose where they do business in the GCC, and with such measures off the table it is unclear what additional economic levers would be used.
“We did our best for those measures not to affect the Qatari people, however, and unfortunately, some of these measures did impact the Qatari people,” Sheikh Abdullah said. “The responsibility here lies with the Qatari government. The Qatari government can simply evolve in its Arab environment. But it must make a choice for the sake of its people and their future.”
The UAE’s ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba said last week that the the crisis between the GCC members was fundamentally about two conflicting visions for the region, with the quartet favouring strong, secular states, and Doha backing Islamist parties and militias.
The uncompromising stance on the demands reiterated by the officials in Bahrain is in line with a string of recent statements that have doused any optimism over Kuwait-led mediation efforts backed heavily by US involvement, while at the same time not escalating further.
Speaking on a US current affairs programme, Mr Al Otaiba said last week that Qatar has “every right to come back tomorrow and say we reject these demands and we don’t want to negotiate. And we are then within our rights to say we don’t want to have a relationship with you.”
The willingness to let the “cold war” situation between Qatar and its three GCC neighbours continue has raised the possibility that the new normal could last indefinitely, and Qatar may face de facto suspension from the bloc.
"We want our six countries to remain cohesive members of the GCC," Sheikh Khalid said. "But, we do not want to see any country interfering on others’ affairs or having a negative impact on other countries."