By Tarek El-Tablawy and Ahmed Feteha
The four-nation alliance that severed ties with Qatar said Wednesday that Doha’s response to its demands to end the crisis had been “negative” and failed to recognize the gravity of the situation — but stopped short of announcing new punitive measures.
Qatar’s reply “showed complacency and non seriousness to deal with the root of the problem and reconsider their policies and practices,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said as he read out a statement on behalf of the allies — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The countries gathered in Cairo to discuss the monthlong spat as the deadline for Qatar to submit to their 13 demands elapsed.
Qatar denies charges that it’s destabilizing the region by supporting terrorism and cozying up to Iran. On Wednesday, its foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, told a Chatham House event that Saudi Arabia and its allies see Qatar as “punching above its weight” and want to silence an alternative voice.
Shoukry said talks would continue and the four-nation grouping wouldn’t make “hasty” decisions, while at the same time calling on the international community to also step up and take responsibility in the fight against terrorism and those who fund or support it. He said the group would meet again in Bahrain, without saying when.
The statement reflected the delicate position the alliance is in as its members consider the next step in a conflict entering its second month. While the isolation is taking its toll on Qatar — its credit rating has been cut and its national carrier forced to take longer routes — the country has received support from Turkey and Iran, and its officials have said they’re prepared to wait out the boycott for as long as it takes.
‘Plenty of Cards’
The Saudi-led alliance has “plenty of cards to play,” including more financial sanctions, but none of the options are “painless things to do,” said David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“The fact that these four countries couldn’t even decide when they’re going to have their next meeting in Bahrain suggests that there is not yet consensus over where they’d like to go next,” he said.
Neither side appears willing to concede ground in the diplomatic impasse, which Kuwait’s emir is working to mediate. U.S. President Donald Trump, in a call with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, urged “all parties to negotiate constructively to resolve the dispute,” the White House said in a statement. Trump stressed the need for nations to follow through on their commitments made during a summit in the Saudi capital in May to “stop terrorist financing and discredit extremist ideology.”
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“While additional punitive measures are likely if Qatar maintains its current policy, the anti-Doha coalition appears sensitive to the narrative of the dispute and the need to appear flexible and patient,” Ayham Kamel, director of the Middle East & North Africa at Eurasia Group in London, said. Trump’s call “probably convinced the alliance to maintain a degree of flexibility to avoid immediate escalation of the crisis.”
The standoff is becoming costlier for Qatar, the world’s largest exporters of liquefied natural gas, the longer it drags out. With air, land and sea links cut, Turkey stepped in to ship food imports that once came in by land through Saudi Arabia, and Iran also promised assistance.
The emirate, which is to host the 2022 soccer World Cup, has been able to weather the brunt of the measures only because of its vast natural gas wealth. Still, Moody’s Investors Service on Tuesday cut its credit outlook for the country to negative, while Qatar’s stock market has lost about $15 billion in market value, or 10 percent, since the Saudi-led boycott went into effect on June 5.
Shoukry said that the four nations “can no longer forgive Qatar’s disruptive role.” His Saudi counterpart, Adel Al-Jubeir, said the alliance would weigh additional measures against Qatar and that it reserved the right to take action when appropriate.
The bloc has 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.
The four countries consider the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Mohamed Mursi, a Brotherhood official, won Egypt’s first democratic presidential election in 2012 before being toppled a year later in what the group called a military coup and its opponents describe as an uprising.
Qatar is facing “greater isolation,” said Anwar Gargash, the U.A.E. minister of state for foreign affairs. “Incremental measures & reputational damage stemming from Doha’s continued support for extremism & terrorism,” he said on Twitter.
Speaking at the event in London, Al Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, urged a different approach: Gulf nations should have a “healthy, constructive” relationship with Iran, he said as he reiterated that his government’s funds “never go to radical groups.”