Tillerson Calls Qatar's Position in Dispute With Arab States 'Very Reasonable'

The U.S. secretary of state is trying to negotiate an end to the Saudi-led blockade of the country.

Naseem Zeitoon / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Tuesday with Qatari officials as he continued his tour of the region in an attempt to help defuse the monthlong rift between Qatar and its Arab neighbors.

“I think Qatar has been quite clear in its positions, and I think those have been very reasonable,” Tillerson said Tuesday.

On Monday, Tillerson and Mark Sedwill, the British national-security adviser, met with officials in Kuwait, which is mediating the crisis among its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Tillerson travels next to Saudi Arabia, which is leading the blockade of Qatar.

In June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain severed ties with Qatar, accusing it of, among other things, supporting terrorist groups. They expelled Qatari citizens who lived in their countries and ordered their citizens in Qatar to return—in may cases separating families. They also cut all transportation ties with Qatar, which relies on supplies trucked in through its land border with Saudi Arabia.

Qatar, which denies the charges against it, turned to Iran and Turkey for support. The U.S. finds itself caught in the middle. Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military base in the region, and it’s from where the U.S. military strikes ISIS. The U.S. also has close ties to Saudi Arabia and other other countries involved in the blockade. Tillerson, who as CEO of Exxon developed close relations with Qatar’s emir, has called for the blockade to be lifted.

Saudi Arabia and the others sent Qatar a list of 13 demands, including the closure of Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned Arabic language broadcaster; the severing of links with Iran, which Saudi Arabia views as its main regional rival; the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar; and the severing of links with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has rejected the demands. The U.S. says some of the demands could be met. Saudi Arabia and the others say the offer no longer stands.

In Washington, Ali Bin Samikh Al-Marri, chairman of the the country’s independent National Human Rights Committee, said the blockade’s humanitarian costs were mounting, and urged the Trump administration to put the “human-rights issue at the top of the agenda.” He was in the U.S. capital to meet with State Department officials on the human-rights aspect of the dispute.

Al-Marri called the Saudi-led action “reckless and unprofessional,” and a “human-rights violation against the people.” He said 11,300 individuals from the countries that imposed the blockade live in Qatar while 19,000 Qataris live in the four countries. Many, he said, had longstanding family, business, educational, and professional ties.

“We’re facing a new Berlin Wall” separating families, al-Marri said, adding his organization had received 2,900 complaints about the blockade in the last month alone; the number for all of 2016 was 2,300.

Indeed, humanitarian groups have criticized the blockade. Amnesty International said the restrictions were “toying with the lives of thousands of Gulf residents” while Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Arab-led measures “have the potential to seriously disrupt the lives of thousands of women, children and men.”

“They would like to use civilians … to make pressure on … Qatar,” al-Marri said in Washington. “They’ve put families at the heart of the crisis.”

In Doha Tuesday, Tillerson and Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, his Qatari counterpart, signed an agreement on ways to combat the financing of terrorism. Tillerson said the deal “represents weeks of intensive discussions between experts and reinvigorates the spirit of the Riyadh summit,” a reference to President Trump’s meeting with Arab leaders in the Saudi capital in May. Trump has appeared to support Saudi Arabia’s version of events in the dispute.

Sheikh Mohammed said Tuesday’s agreement had been in the works for months, adding it was not connected to the dispute with Saudi Arabia and the others.