But conspicuously absent in the Qatari minister's remarks was Tillerson's boss, President Trump.
We're now in the fourth week of a Saudi- and Emirati-led blockade of Qatar that Trump has loudly supported. The Persian Gulf states have justified the move as a way to punish Doha for its alleged support of Islamist militancy, its perceived coziness with Iran and the subversive rhetoric of the Qatari-funded Al Jazeera news channel. Qatar, which hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East, has had to build new supply chains for food and other goods with the help of countries like Turkey, Iran and Oman.
“We were surprised and frankly shocked by these measures, and considered them unwarranted and unjustified,” said al-Thani of the blockade.
In theory, his government is supposed to meet a deadline next week whereby, among other actions, it would have to shutter Al Jazeera; kick out Turkish troops hosted on Qatari soil; sever what links they have to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Iran; and submit themselves to regular auditing by Gulf neighbors. Qatar has so far refused to accede to any of the demands.
“This ultimatum is not a list of demands, or requests, but a clear effort to undermine our foreign policy and national sovereignty,” said the Qatari minister.
Qatar's adversaries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC — the bloc of wealthy Arab states now plunged into crisis — appears in no mood to compromise. It's high time, their argument goes, to punish their unruly cousins.
“The battle is clear. Qatar targets regimes by weakening them or toppling them,” wrote Saudi journalist Abdulrahman al-Rashed in a blunt column calling for Doha's submission. “It is inevitable for such actions to be responded to in the same way. Therefore, it is best for this misbehaved cat of ill repute to wave the white flag instead of being dragged behind its propaganda and believing it itself.”
This uncompromising negotiating position is not welcome in Doha — nor, it seems, in European capitals or even with Tillerson. He has urged an easing of the blockade and suggested the current crisis is disrupting U.S.-led efforts to fight the Islamic State and hedge against Iran.
But that's exactly where Tillerson's disagreements with the White House seem to come in. On the same day that Tillerson urged swift reconciliation earlier this month, Trump congratulated the Saudis and Emiratis on their “hard but necessary” move.
“A close associate of the secretary of state says that Tillerson was … 'absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page.' Tillerson’s aides, I was told, were convinced that the true author of Trump’s statement was UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. 'Rex put two-and-two together,' his close associate says, 'and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.' The Trump statement was nearly the last straw for Tillerson, this close associate explains: 'Rex is just exhausted. He can’t get any of his appointments approved and is running around the world cleaning up after a president whose primary foreign policy adviser is a 36-year-old amateur.'”
News of Tillerson's frustration bubbled to the surface on Thursday when Politico reported that the secretary of state “exploded” at a meeting last week at the White House, complaining about his inability to staff State Department posts. The outburst apparently “stunned” senior White House officials.
Discord within the Trump administration is not going to help settle what could be a destabilizing standoff. Analysts note that the impasse is only pushing Qatar closer to Tehran's orbit. Al-Thani also coyly suggested Thursday that Trump may want to better coordinate with other wings of his government, including the State Department and Treasury Department — the latter which has already been keeping tabs on Qatari efforts to curb terror financing.
“I think further engagement across agencies inside the United States would give a better insight for the president on the nature of the relationship between the United States and Qatar,” said al-Thani.
“Saudi Arabia has long been irritated by Qatar, the huge gas reserves of which give it financial independence from the kingdom. The UAE has resented the support Qatar has given to the Muslim Brotherhood, members of which have plotted against the ruling family in Abu Dhabi, the leading emirate of the confederation. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood regime, which survived in power for two years largely because it was propped up financially by Qatar. Bahrain has had a history of land disputes with Qatar — and while these were resolved in 1994, ill will persists, encouraged by Riyadh."
In short, neither side seems willing or likely to back down. Meanwhile, the crisis “raises a big question mark over the future of the GCC,” said the Qatari foreign minister, dashing whatever dreams of Sunni Arab unity Trump had pushed while visiting Saudi Arabia. And the consequences of this unraveling pose new headaches that Tillerson, Kushner nor anyone else in the administration needs.