Saudi foreign minister hints at resolving Qatar blockade

Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan says while security concerns must be addressed, a path to ending rift may be in ‘relatively near future’.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan's remarks came during a virtual discussion hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy [File: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP]

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has signalled progress may be under way towards resolving the three-year-old rift with its Gulf neighbour Qatar, following a meeting in Washington with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia along with United Arab Emirates (UAE) Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Doha and imposed a sea, land and air blockade on the gas-rich nation.

“We are committed to finding a solution,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan said in a virtual discussion hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank, on Thursday.

“We continue to be willing to engage with our Qatari brothers, and we hope that they are as committed to that engagement.

“But we do need to address the legitimate security concerns of the quartet and I think there is a path toward that” with a solution “in the relatively near future,” said Prince Faisal.

We are committed to finding a solution.

by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan

“If we are able to find a path forward to address the legitimate security concerns … that drove us to take the decisions we took, that will be good news for the region,” he added.

The four blockading nations accused Qatar of supporting “terrorism” and meddling in their internal affairs for years. Doha was also accused of being too close to regional rival Iran.

Qatar has vehemently denied those claims.

The Trump administration has been pushing for an end to the blockade and paving the way for a united Gulf against Iran.

Several past attempts to end the dispute have failed, as Qatar has rejected the blockading nations’ demands that include shutting down Al Jazeera Media Network, cutting ties with Islamist groups, limiting ties with Iran and expelling Turkish troops stationed in the country.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has said that his country is ready for dialogue to resolve the diplomatic crisis, but stressed that any solution to the crisis must respect his country’s sovereignty.

In June, Kuwait, a mediator between Qatar and its quartet of Gulf Arab neighbours, said there was progress towards resolving the standoff but little progress has been done.

Last December, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said early talks with Saudi Arabia had broken the impasse but a month later he said that efforts to resolve the dispute were unsuccessful.

Prince Faisal visited Washington for a US-Saudi strategic dialogue at the State Department on Wednesday that included discussions about relations with Israel, the US’ “maximum-pressure” campaign against Iran and the war in Yemen.

Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Pompeo has also urged Saudi Arabia to recognise Israel, in what would be a strategic boost for the Jewish state amid normalisation with the two other Gulf Arab kingdoms – the UAE and Bahrain.

Bahrain, which tightly coordinates its foreign policy with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on September 15 signed the so-called Abraham Accords with Israel at the White House.

But Prince Faisal said the focus should remain on the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks before any formal rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

He emphasised the importance of negotiations between partners “willing to talk”, adding that a solution to the conflict could be possible “if we continue to talk, to come together with a common goal of a settlement that works for all parties.

“We are committed to the process of peace as a strategic necessity for the region and part of that is an eventual normalistion with Israel as envisioned in the Arab peace plan.

“But the focus needs to be on getting Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table.”

Riyadh has quietly acquiesced to the UAE and Bahrain deals – though it has stopped short of endorsing them – and has signalled it is not ready to take action itself.

Palestinian officials have condemned the normalisation as “a stab in the back of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people”.

Addressing other regional issues, Prince Faisal said Saudi Arabia was not looking for conflict with Tehran but argued that  US President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign is working, weakening the government and depleting it of the resources needed to prop up its proxies in the region.

Riyadh and Tehran have been involved in proxy wars across the region for decades from Iraq to Syria and Yemen.

The Trump administration, backed by its closest ally Israel, has slapped new sanctions on Iran to pressure it to abandon its nuclear programme.

Backing the Trump administration’s hawkish approach to Iran, the Saudi minister said it will bring Iran back to the negotiating table for a “JCPOA ++”, a reference to 2015 Iran deal from which US president walked out in 2018.

The deal was signed by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. The European Union, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany were the other signatories to the 2015 deal which called for a curb in Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies