Top US diplomat returns to deal with Gulf crisis

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says expectations of a resolution are low
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
By AFP
Fri 20 Oct 2017 10:52 AM

The United States will again try to resolve a Gulf crisis that Washington has alternatively fueled or tried to soothe, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads back to the region.

The top US diplomat did not himself hold out much hope of an immediate breakthrough in the stand-off between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but the trip may clarify the issues at stake.

"I do not have a lot of expectations for it being resolved anytime soon," Tillerson admitted on Thursday, in an interview with the Bloomberg news agency.

"There seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage."
Nevertheless, President Donald Trump's chief envoy is to leave Washington this weekend for Saudi Arabia and from there head on to Qatar, to talk through a breakdown in ties.

Trump, having initially exacerbated the split by siding with Riyadh and denouncing Qatar for supporting terrorism at a "high level," has predicted the conflict will be resolved.

Tillerson, a former chief executive of energy giant ExxonMobil, knows the region well, having dealt with its royal rulers while negotiating oil and gas deals.

But the latest diplomatic spat is a tricky one, pitching US allies against one another even as Washington is trying to coordinate opposition to Iran and to Islamist violence.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut diplomatic relations with Qatar in June, accusing it of supporting terrorism and cozying up to Iran.

The sides have been at an impasse since then, despite efforts by Kuwait - and a previous unsuccessful trip by Tillerson in July - to mediate the crisis.

The blockade has had an impact on Qatar's gas-rich economy, and created a new rift in an already unstable Middle East, with Turkey siding with Qatar and Egypt with the Gulf.

Iran, Washington's foe, only stands to benefit from a split in the otherwise pro-Western camp, and US military leaders are quietly concerned about the long-term effects.

Trump, after initially vocally support the effort to isolate Qatar despite its role as a military ally and host of a major US airbase, has not called for a negotiated resolution.

Tillerson says there has been little movement.

"Our role is to try to ensure lines of communication are as open as we can help them be, that messages not be misunderstood," he said.

"We're ready to play any role we can to bring them together but at this point it really is now up to the leadership of those countries."

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