By Tom Finn and Sylvia Westall
DOHA/DUBAI U.S. President Donald Trump took sides in a deep rift in the Arab world on Tuesday, praising Middle East countries' actions against American ally Qatar over Islamist militants even though the tiny Gulf state hosts the largest U.S. air base in the region.Trump wrote on Twitter that a recent trip he made to the Middle East was "already paying off" and cast an anti-Islamist speech he made in Saudi Arabia as the inspiration for a decision by Arab powers to sever ties with Qatar in protest at what they say is the Gulf nation's support for terrorism.Qatar vehemently denies the accusations against it."So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!" Trump wrote on Twitter.U.S. officials were blindsided by Saudi Arabia's decision to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar in a coordinated move with Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), current and former officials in Washington told Reuters.Even as Trump applauded the Arab countries' decision, the Pentagon on Tuesday renewed praise of Qatar for hosting U.S. forces and its "enduring commitment to regional security."Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis declined to answer a question about whether Qatar supported terrorism, saying: "I’m not the right person to ask that. I consider them a host to our very important base at al Udeid."Some 8,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed at al Udeid in Qatar, the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East and a staging ground for U.S.-led strikes on the Islamic State militant group that has seized parts of Syria and Iraq. Trump's tweet appeared at odds with comments from U.S. officials who had said on Monday that the United States would quietly try to calm the waters between Saudi Arabia and Qatar because Qatar is too important to U.S. military and diplomatic interests to be isolated.Qatar has for years parlayed its enormous gas wealth and media strength into broad influence in the region. But Gulf Arab neighbours and Egypt have long been irked by its maverick stances and support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they regard as a political enemy.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said on Tuesday that Qatar needed to take several steps, including ending its support of Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, to restore ties with other key Arab states, which also cut transport links."We've decided to take steps to make clear that enough is enough," Adel Al-Jubeir told journalists in Paris. "Nobody wants to hurt Qatar. Qatar has to choose whether it must move in one direction or another direction".The campaign to isolate Qatar disrupted trade in commodities from crude oil to metals and food, and deepened fears of a possible shock to the global gas market, where the tiny state is a major player. Qataris crowded into supermarkets to stock up on goods, fearing shortages.Maersk (MAERSKb.CO), the world's biggest container shipping line, said it was unable to transport goods in or out of Qatar because it could not take them through the UAE port of Jebel Ali. MEDIATION AND CONSEQUENCES
Gulf Arab officials said Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber al-Sabah would meet Saudi Arabia's King Salman hoping to heal the rift, which has affected global oil prices, hit travel plans and sown confusion among businesses.A number of banks in the region began stepping back from business dealings with Qatar. Saudi Arabia's central bank advised banks in the kingdom not to trade with Qatari banks in Qatari riyals, sources said.Oil prices LCOc1 CLc1 fell on concern that the rift would undermine efforts by OPEC to tighten output.Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV Qatar would not retaliate, hoping Kuwait would help resolve the dispute."We are willing to sit and talk," he told CNN later, and said his country was "protecting the world from potential terrorists".
A Qatari official said the rift was pushing Doha in the direction of leaving the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council, "with deep regret".Qatar's leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, spoke by telephone overnight with his counterpart in Kuwait and, in order to allow Kuwait to mediate, decided to put off a planned speech to the nation, the minister said.The split among the Sunni Muslim states erupted last month after the summit of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, where Trump denounced Shi'ite Iran's "destabilising interventions" in Arab lands, where Tehran is locked in a tussle with Riyadh for influence.Bans on Doha's fleet using regional ports and anchorages threatened to halt some of its exports and disrupt those of liquefied natural gas.Traders on global markets worried that Riyadh's allies would refuse to accept LNG shipments from the Gulf state, and that Egypt might even bar tankers carrying Qatari cargoes from using the Suez Canal as they head to Europe and beyond.Saudi Arabia's aviation authority revoked the license of Qatar Airways and ordered its offices to be closed within 48 hours. Flight tracker websites showed Qatar Airways flights instead taking a circuitous route, mostly over Iran. Qatar's stock market slid to its lowest close since January 2016 and the Qatari riyal came under pressure.Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi said on Tuesday his country was "not part" of the dispute.The measures are more severe than during a previous eight-month rift in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, again on the grounds of alleged Qatari support for militant groups. (Reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Tom Arnold, Hadeel Al Sayegh, William Maclean and Celine Aswad in Dubai and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Andrew Roche and James Dalgleish)
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Published Date: Jun 07, 2017 00:45 AM | Updated Date: Jun 07, 2017 00:45 AM