Speaking at the inaugural round of US-Qatar strategic talks in Washington on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called for an end to a six-month-old diplomatic crisis that has left the Persian Gulf region on a knife’s edge as relations between key energy producers continue to deteriorate.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism in the region and of working on behalf of Riyadh’s arch-enemy, Iran, to tip the balance of power in the Middle East.
Doha has repeatedly rejected the claims of its former allies and has moved ahead with forging stronger ties with Turkey, Oman, and Iran.
“It is critical that all parties minimize rhetoric, exercise restraint to avoid further escalation and work toward a resolution,” said Tillerson at a joint press conference attended by the US and Qatari foreign and defence ministers. “The dispute has had direct negative consequences, economically, and militarily for those involved, as well as the United States.”
More than six months after the diplomatic crisis erupted, the about-face from the administration of US President Donald Trump is striking. Trump originally appeared to side with Riyadh when he tweeted support for an embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies.
He later reversed course and in a January call with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, where he thanked him for Doha’s support in Washington’s War on Terror.
Mattis struck a more measured tone than Trump when speaking with his Qatari counterpart, Defence Minister Khalid bin Muhammad al-Attiyah.
“A united Gulf Cooperation Council bolsters our effectiveness on many fronts, particularly on counterterrorism, defeating ISIS, and countering the spread of Iran’s influence,” said Mattis, referring to the group of Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, or GCC.
Washington and Doha used the occasion to announce the signing of several key agreements in the defence, security, energy, trade, and investment sectors.
“Our countries have shared interests – interests that translate into job opportunities for the American and Qatar people,” said Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who noted that Qatari companies are already investing “more than $100 million” into the US economy.
The two sides also came to a resolution on the oil-rich Gulf island nation’s national flag carrier, Qatari Airways, which agreed to release its detailed financial statements in an effort to respond to accusations that the airline has been illegally funded by the government.
The deals appear to be a concerted effort by the Qatari government to circumvent the crippling sanctions put in place by the Saudi-led coalition last June. By embracing a closer and deeper political and economic cooperation with the US, Qatar’s efforts to undermine Saudi influence in the northern Persian Gulf – also known as the Arabian Gulf in many Middle East countries – appear to be paying off.
Qatar remains a key Western military ally in the region. It plays host to US and international forces at Al-Udeid Air Base, home to the Combined Air Operations Centre that coordinates intelligence data from satellites, drones, radar, and US planes carrying out combat missions across the Middle East.