By Nick Wadhams and Zainab Fattah
Qatar and the U.S. on Tuesday struck a pact to strengthen Qatari action against terrorist funding, an issue at the center of the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf that has pit longstanding American allies against each other.
The memorandum of understanding was signed as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in the Qatari capital, Doha, part of his sweep through the region in pursuit of a negotiated settlement of the feud, now in its second month. With the accord, the U.S. and Qatar “will do more to track down funding sources, will do more to collaborate and share information and will do more to keep the region and our homeland safe,” Tillerson told a news conference in Doha.
U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson and Qatar Foreign Minister Al Thani speak at a news conference in Doha.
The agreement was the most concrete step the U.S. has taken to to end a standoff that started after a Saudi-led alliance of four nations severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar. The grouping — including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — accuses the Gulf nation of destabilizing the region by supporting proxies of Shiite-dominant Iran and Sunni extremists, charges it denies.
Allison Wood, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with Control Risks in Dubai, said the agreement will change the nature of the talks Tillerson will hold on Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, the third leg of his trip. “It forces the Saudis to be more explicit about their other grievances against Qatar and how they can constructively address them,’’ Wood said.
The agreement lays out a series of steps the two countries will take over the coming months and years to interrupt and disable terror financing flows, Tillerson said.
The top U.S. diplomats told reporters earlier that Qatar “has been quite clear in its positions, and I think very reasonable, and we want to talk now how do we take things forward — That’s my purpose in coming.”
Tillerson met with the emir of Kuwait, which has also assumed a mediator’s role in the dispute, on Monday.
The Gulf crisis has put the U.S. in a difficult spot. It’s allied with nations on both sides of the dispute. Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for the U.S. Central Command, which includes a state-of-the-art air base the Pentagon depends on to target Islamic State. Saudi Arabia has strong counter-terrorism ties with the U.S. and is the top buyer of American weapons.
The agreement lays out a series of steps the two countries will take over the coming months and years to interrupt and disable terrorism financing flows, Tillerson said at the press conference. State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond described it as a “hopeful step forward.”
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said at the press conference that his nation was the first to sign the pact and he invited other countries to join. He also said the agreement wasn’t linked to the Gulf impasse and had been planned for weeks. Tillerson applauded Qatar’s leadership for “being the first to respond” to President Donald Trump’s call in Riyadh in May for countries in the region to stop funding terrorism.
“The idea of a U.S.-Qatari agreement on terror financing has been floating around for a few weeks now,” said Peter Salisbury, senior research fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East & North Africa Program. “It’s part of a package the U.S. has been proposing to end the crisis, and I think people at State Department will see it as a smart way of neutralizing the Gang-of-Four argument that Qatar is the weakest link in the region when it comes to funding for terror groups.”
The standoff shows no signs of ending. The Saudi-led alliance said Monday that previous agreements struck with Qatar — details of which were first reported by CNN — had barred signatories from supporting groups hostile to any of the Gulf Cooperation Council governments. The bloc maintains that Qatar violated these accords, which it said formed the basis of the 13-point list of demands that Doha rejected as a prerequisite to ending the current standoff.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed said the leaked documents seek to “undermine the mediation” by Kuwait and to undercut the visit by Tillerson and the efforts by the U.S. to resolve the crisis. He commented during the press conference with Tillerson.
The Saudi-led bloc had demanded that Qatar scale back ties with Iran, the Shiite Muslim powerhouse that’s the main rival to Saudi Arabia in the region; sever relations with the Muslim Brotherhood; and shut the Al Jazeera media network that’s riled governments throughout the Middle East. Last week, Sheikh Mohammed said Saudi Arabia and its allies see Qatar as “punching above its weight” and want to silence an alternative voice.
“I think that when you look at the leaked 2013 and 2014 agreements, that can be seen as a signal that the campaign isn’t over, and that they see Qatar as untrustworthy,” Salisbury said. “The Qataris meanwhile are arguing that the Saudis and others didn’t follow agreed procedure for expressing grievances. Long story short, the U.S. is trying to do what it can, but the GCC states and Egypt aren’t going to compromise any time soon.’’