WASHINGTON - The United States is renewing its call for Gulf countries to resolve a three-year-long rift, citing the need to solidify a united front against Iran.
“To close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it's past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Monday. “The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue.”
Pompeo spoke after welcoming senior Qatari officials, including Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al -Emadi to the State Department for the third annual U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue.
The secretary of state was joined by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The U.S. signed agreements with Qatar to enhance investment and cultural ties.
Both the U.S. and Qatari officials discussed “the regional momentum to advance peace and prosperity, the need to overcome divisions within the Gulf and further combat Iran’s destabilizing effect on the region, and Qatar’s effort to support stability and economic development in Gaza,” according to the State Department.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc, composed of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE,) Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, has been fractured since mid-2017.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a boycott, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Qatar has denied the allegations.
The boycotting nations set 13 demands, among them were ultimatums that Qatar shut down its Al Jazeera news network, cut ties with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, limit its links to Iran and expel Turkish troops from its territory.
Kuwait and the U.S. have tried to mediate the quarrel that’s seen as undermining Washington’s efforts to unify the region against Iran, which is seen as competing for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.
“I would like to thank the U.S. for supporting the Kuwaiti mediation to resolve the blockade on the basis of the respecter for the sovereignty and independence of the State of Qatar,” said Al-Thani, while acknowledging the “shared threats” between the U.S. and Qatar.
“We will also discuss a range of defense and security issues, including shared threats, opportunities for the regional cooperation and mechanisms for the defeating of malign actors arrayed against us. Qatar and the United States are in agreement that such threats are among the greatest challenges we face today in the Middle East to our shared vision of peace, stability and prosperity for all,” Al -Thani.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said last week there has been a great deal of “high-level engagement” and “White House involvement” in resolving the three-year-long rift between Gulf Arab states.
“There is a recognition that this is a distraction from Iran,” said Schenker during a virtual event hosted by the Washington-based Brookings Institution on Sept. 9.
Schenker said the U.S. has been working with partners in GCC.
“We're hoping that we see a little bit more flexibility here. I don't want to get into the whole diplomacy in it, but there is some movement. I would like to say that it's going to be a matter of weeks," he said.
The White House Tuesday is hosting a ceremony where the UAE and Israel are signing the so-called Abraham Accord to normalize diplomatic ties.
“As Israel and the UAE join President Trump at the White House to sign a historic agreement to normalize relations, we anticipate other countries in the Middle East will recognize the benefits of a closer relationship with Israel. In that effort, also, Qatar plays an invaluable role in helping stabilize Gaza, as well as regional efforts to de-escalate tensions both in Syria and in Lebanon,” said Pompeo on Monday.
Experts say the United States is expected to ask Qatar to normalize diplomatic ties with Israel.
“I do not envision the GCC conflict resolved soon, but I don't think that conflict prevents Israel from normalizing ties with both Bahrain and Qatar,” said Daniel Serwer, the Middle East Institute’s scholar and professor on Monday.
Others said the administration’s immediate objective is not to achieve a resolution to the dispute altogether, but initially to address opening airspace for Qatari flights.
“Several recent reports seem to indicate that a deal was close but requires further effort and discussion. The administration will likely continue to strive to achieve this initial objective before the elections in November,” said Hesham Youssef, a former career diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt and now a senior fellow with the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.
Youssef told VOA Monday that Qatar’s GCC rift and normalization of ties with Israel will likely remain separate issues.
“Because of Qatar’s rivalry with the UAE, Qatar will not want to be viewed as following in the Emirates’ steps in relation to normalization with Israel,” said Youssef. “Furthermore, the Emirates framed its deal in a context of suspending Israeli unilateral annexation and it is not clear that Qatar would be able to achieve an equivalent framing.”