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article imageUS praises Qatar ties but calls for Gulf unity

By Dave Clark (AFP)     Jan 30, 2018 in World

The United States praised Qatar for its improved counterterrorism cooperation Tuesday and warned that its rift with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors has hurt the fight against extremism.

Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a diplomatic boycott of Qatar and closed their frontiers last year, accusing the gas-rich emirate of cozying up to Iran and sponsoring Islamist groups.

US President Donald Trump, fresh from a successful trip to Riyadh, seemed at first to take the Saudi side in the dispute and demanded that Qatar, which denies the charges, change its behavior.

But US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have been working to bring the dispute to an end and bind both Qatar and its opponents into a deeper mutual alliance.

On Tuesday, these diplomatic efforts produced the first of what may become an annual US-Qatari Strategic Dialogue, hosted by Tillerson and Mattis for their counterparts from Qatar.

In opening remarks, neither side criticized Saudi Arabia or its ambitious crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman by name, but both stressed the importance of unity in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

"As the Gulf dispute nears the eight-month mark the United States remains as concerned today as we were at its outset," Tillerson said, opening the meeting of senior US and Qatari officials.

"This dispute has had direct negative consequences economically and militarily for those involved as well as the United States."

Saudi Arabia is also a long-time ally of the United States and is bigger, richer and more influential than Qatar, which lies on a peninsula off its neighbor's Gulf coast in gas-rich waters.

But Qatar has parlayed its riches into an outsize influence with key economic investments in Western countries underpinning ties and winning prizes like hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup.

It has also annoyed its neighbors by funding and hosting the Al-Jazeera satellite network, which broadcasts Arabic news and views across the region that make some governments uncomfortable.

And it has fostered ties with some Islamist groups, giving it a role in regional crises that is unwelcome to some leaders.

Sometimes this is helpful to the United States: The Taliban has an office in Qatar, which serves as a back-channel for the US to get messages to their Afghan foe even as their troops fight elsewhere.

But Qatar's ties to groups like the Palestinian movement Hamas, who the United States views as terrorists, have hurt ties.

As the officials met, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank with the ear of some in the Trump administration called on Tillerson to play tough.

"The Trump administration must make it clear that Doha has not been exonerated," researcher Varsha Koduvayur wrote.

Nevertheless, Qatar is also host to the huge Al-Udeid air base, a hub for allied aircraft in many Middle East conflict and home to thousands of US personnel and a forward command center.

Tillerson and Mattis both praised Qatar's improved cooperation in counterterrorism, while expressing hope the Saudi spat would end.

"It's critical that all parties minimize rhetoric, exercise restraint to avoid further escalation and work towards a resolution," Tillerson said.

"A united GCC bolsters our effectiveness on many fronts, particularly on counterterrorism, defeating ISIS and countering the spread of Iran's malign influence."

- Investment in US jobs -

Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Qatar has a lot to offer the United States economically, including Trump's foreign policy priority -- jobs.

He boasted that Qatar is already investing $100 billion in the US, including $10 billion in infrastructure, but warned this could be put at risk if Riyadh is allowed to break the alliance.

"To make all these investments flourish, regional security is essential," he said, in his own opening remarks.

"The state of Qatar and its people have been illegally and unjustifiably blockaded. This blockade disrupts the joint efforts in providing stability for the region."

Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah proudly cited the purchase of US F-15 jets -- but not a similar deal to buy British Typhoons nor negotiations for Russia's S-400 air defense system.

And he signalled Qatar's desire to make Al-Udeid a permanent US base, with plans to build a family-friendly accommodation for American servicemen and women on long deployments.

"Even in the midst of its own current challenges Qatar and the United States maintain excellent military-to-military relations," Mattis said, before signing a deal to deepen cooperation.

But he added: "It is thus critical that the GCC recovers its cohesion as the proud Gulf nations return to mutual support through a peaceful resolution."

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