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Qatar crisis grinds on as top US diplomat leaves the Gulf

Posted July 13

— The top U.S. diplomat concluded a week of shuttle diplomacy in the Persian Gulf crisis on Thursday bearing no promise of an imminent breakthrough, but he voiced optimism that Qatar and its four Arab neighbors might soon at least be willing to talk face to face.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to tiny, gas-rich Qatar for a second time for a lunch meeting with 37-year-old Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, following talks earlier in the week in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. As he flew back to Washington, Tillerson told reporters that the discussions had been "helpful" and that the U.S. planned to keep at it.

"In my view, there's a changed sense of willingness to at least be open to talking to one another, and that was not the case before I came," Tillerson said.

It was a far cry from a U.S.-brokered resolution to the crisis that has now spanned more than a month, and no meeting of the feuding nations has yet been announced. But Tillerson's aides had said ahead of time they didn't expect a quick solution would result from his four days of talks.

Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil CEO with deep experience in the oil-rich Gulf, has been shuttling between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and mediator Kuwait since Monday trying to repair a rift that is dividing some of America's most important Mideast allies. Ahead of the trip, the U.S. said the crisis was at an "impasse," but on Thursday the State Department said that was no longer the case.

Tillerson's clearest achievement was to secure a memorandum of understanding with Qatar to strengthen its counterterrorism efforts and address shortfalls in policing terrorism funding. That deal goes to the core of the anti-Qatar quartet's complaints against the natural gas-rich state: that it provides support for extremist groups.

Qatar vehemently denies the allegation, though it has provided aid that helps Islamist groups that others have branded as terrorists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The anti-Qatar bloc — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — argues that the pressure and demands it has placed on Qatar helped lead to the counterterrorism pact, but it says the agreement does not go far enough to end the dispute.

Those countries are holding fast to their insistence that Qatar bow to a 13-point list of demands that includes shutting down Qatar's flagship Al-Jazeera network and other news outlets, cutting ties with Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, limiting Qatar's ties with Iran and expelling Turkish troops stationed in the tiny Gulf country.

As he returned to Washington, Tillerson he'd sought to catalog the Arab nations' concerns in written documents and sort them into "buckets" so they would be easier to address. He said some categories of concerns could be "addressed up front fairly quickly" but others were more complex and would take longer to resolve.

"If we can begin to have some success beginning to take some of these issues off the table, because we now have a way to move forward, then I'm hoping that will start the process of returning, normalizing relations," Tillerson said.

Qatar has rejected the demands, saying that agreeing to them wholesale would undermine its sovereignty. It is intent on waiting out the crisis despite its neighbors' attempts to isolate it.

Shipping companies have set up alternate routes to get supplies into Qatar without going through the blockading countries, and flag carrier Qatar Airways continues to operate its 200-strong fleet by detouring over friendlier airspace.

The government says it is covering a tenfold increase in shipping costs for essentials. Ally Turkey and nearby Iran have also boosted exports to Qatar, and the country has even taken to importing cows to meet a dairy shortfall caused by the closure of its only land border with Saudi Arabia.

Still, the rift is causing hardship for some.

Human Rights Watch said Thursday the dispute has left families separated, forced students out of their universities, and impeded medical care, including for a child who missed a scheduled brain surgery.

The rights group also raised concerns about migrant workers based in Qatar who have been left stranded in Saudi Arabia and others in Doha who are struggling with a rise in food costs because of the blockade.

"Gulf autocrats' political disputes are violating the rights of peaceful Gulf residents who were living their lives and caring for their families," Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Mideast director, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the squabble among five of its Mideast allies has put the United States in an uncomfortable position and risks complicating the Pentagon's operations in the region.

Qatar hosts al-Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military installation in the Middle East and hub for U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, while American surveillance planes and other aircraft fly from the UAE.

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Lederman reported from Washington.

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Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck

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