Saudis insist there’s no blockade of Qatar as Gulf crisis simmers

Updated June 14, 2017

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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stand before speaking to the media on June 13 shortly before their private meeting at the US Department of State in Washington.─AFP
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stand before speaking to the media on June 13 shortly before their private meeting at the US Department of State in Washington.─AFP

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia insisted on Tuesday that Qatar was not under blockade as a Gulf diplomatic dispute escalated amid increasing international concern over its effects on ordinary people.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in Washington for talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, insisted that moves to isolate Qatar were reasonable.

“There is no blockade of Qatar. Qatar is free to go. The ports are open, the airports are open,” Jubeir said alongside a silent Tillerson who had called last week for the embargo on Qatar to be “eased”.

“The limitation on the use of Saudi airspace is only limited to Qatari airways or Qatari-owned aircraft, not anybody else,” Jubeir said. “The seaports of Qatar are open. There is no blockade on them. Qatar can move goods in and out whenever they want. They just cannot use our territorial waters.”

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a Doha ally, denounced Qatar’s economic and political isolation. “Taking action to isolate a country in all areas is inhumane and un-Islamic,” Erdogan said in televised comments on Tuesday.

In his strongest remarks yet on the crisis, Erdogan added that “a death sentence had in some way been pronounced” on Qatar.

Turkey is in a delicate position as Ankara regards Qatar as its chief ally in the Gulf, but it is also keen to maintain its improving relations with Saudi Arabia.

Doha’s ambassador to the European Union, Abdul Rahman Al Khulaifi, said on Tuesday Qatar was “astonished and surprised when we hear voices who say we are supporting terrorism”.

“These accusations ... it doesn’t have any base, any logic to it,” he said. “You can disagree politically with your neighbours, but why do you get the people of the region involved in it?” the envoy asked.

The Gulf states on June 5 ordered Qataris to leave within 14 days and also banned their own citizens from travelling to the emirate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman discussed the crisis on Tuesday, with Putin warning that isolating Qatar would make finding a peaceful end to the war in Syria more difficult.

Their talks “touched on the aggravated situation around Qatar, which unfortunately does not help consolidate joint efforts in resolving the conflict in Syria and fighting the terrorist threat,” a Kremlin statement said.

Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran called for a permanent mechanism in the Gulf to resolve issues such as the current crisis.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in Norway, said it was “absolutely imperative” to resolve the row through dialogue and to “establish a permanent mechanism for consultation, conversation and conflict resolution in our region.” He said this could be along the lines of the 1975 Helsinki accords signed during the Cold War to reduce tensions between Western and Communist nations.

As the crisis simmered, Washington’s envoy to Doha tweeted on Tuesday that she was leaving her post. Dana Shell Smith did not say why she was stepping down, but in Washington officials said she had made a personal decision to leave earlier this year after a normal three-year tour. Smith was appointed ambassador by US President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in 2014.

Last month in another tweet she appeared to express dissatisfaction with political events back home. After Trump’s dramatic sacking of FBI director James Comey, she wrote: “Increasingly difficult to wake up overseas to news from home, knowing I will spend today explaining our democracy and institutions.”

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2017