Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on a Saudi Arabia-led bloc of Arab nations Friday to immediately ease their blockade of Qatar and urged all involved in the week-long Persian Gulf dispute to quickly resolve their differences, remarks that President Trump seemed to undercut less than an hour later.
Trump began a Rose Garden news conference with the visiting president of Romania by saying that the Saudi-led action against Qatar was “hard but necessary.” He said he had been consulted in advance by nations that “spoke to me about confronting Qatar,” a country he said historically has been a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
He said he had decided, along with Tillerson and “our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end that funding . . . and its extremist ideology.”
Earlier, in a brief, formal statement at the State Department, Tillerson had called on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease their blockade, warning that it was causing humanitarian hardship in Qatar, harming U.S. and international business, and hindering U.S. military actions against the Islamic State.
A senior administration official, speaking after Trump’s comments, acknowledged a difference in “tone” with Tillerson. “But I think the policy is consistent,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain the apparent discrepancy.
Trump does not oppose easing the blockade — although he did not mention it — but “he does believe that [Qatar] deserves it,” the official said. If the Persian Gulf states and Egypt “want to keep the pressure on” in terms of canceling flights with Qatar and “pulling ambassadors . . . [Trump] is okay with that.”
“Tillerson may initially have had a view, then the president has his view, and obviously the president’s view prevails,” the official said. He said that the two had spoken immediately before Tillerson’s State Department remarks, which the secretary read over the telephone to the president. Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also met with Trump on Thursday at the White House.
The fast-escalating crisis in the Persian Gulf began Monday when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed relations with Qatar, expelled its diplomats and nationals, and closed ports, airspace and borders to the small, energy-rich nation surrounded on three sides by the Persian Gulf. Its only land border is with Saudi Arabia.
Trump, in a series of Monday postings on Twitter, quickly congratulated the Saudis and claimed credit for encouraging the move. He said that while he was meeting with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia last month and calling for them to unify against extremism, they had “pointed” at Qatar as a terrorism funder.
Although Trump delivered a speech to dozens of leaders of Muslim-majority countries called to Riyadh for the occasion, the focus of the visit was the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, with which the administration said it had concluded “more than half a trillion dollars” of military sales and commercial deals, and U.S. defense coordination with the Gulf Cooperation Council, the six-member regional body that includes the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.
The group has always been less than cohesive, with the Saudis claiming leadership and Qatar challenging its dominance and differing on issues such as forming a working relationship with Iran, which Qatar favors. As they did with President Barack Obama, the members signed a communique with Trump pledging unity. The Saudis took action against Qatar less than 24 hours after Trump left Riyadh.
Even as Trump was tweeting his approval, Tillerson and Mattis, traveling together in Australia, called for calm and mediation. The Pentagon’s air operations for the Middle East, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are headquartered at a large air base in Qatar, home to at least 10,000 U.S. service members.
Throughout the week, the Pentagon has emphasized that the dispute has not affected its operations. Asked about Tillerson’s comment regarding hindered operations at Qatar’s Al-Udeid air base, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the situation had not changed, but that the Defense Logistics Agency was drawing up contingency plans in case the U.S. military’s use of the Qatar base becomes a problem.
Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, has long been an influential regional player. In addition to its dialogue with Iran, it has raised the ire of its gulf neighbors over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other authoritarian countries as extremist and a threat to their existence. Qatar has used its wealth to also support groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Saudi Arabia, too, has come under scrutiny for indirectly supporting extremist networks that promote the kingdom’s archconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
In his statement, Tillerson said the U.S. expectation was that “these countries will immediately take steps to deescalate the situation.” He said that the United States supported regional mediation efforts and that “it is clear to me . . . that the elements of a solution are available.”
He called on Qatar “to be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors. Qatar has a history of supporting groups that have spanned the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence,” Tillerson said. While “the emir of Qatar has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country . . . he must do more and he must do it quickly.”
In comments apparently addressed to Saudi Arabia and its partners, however, he said: “Others must also continue to eliminate . . . support for violent extremism within their own borders.” At the same time, he said, “we expect to see progress . . . in the Arab world toward greater political expression” and allowing more opportunities for “marginalized voices.”
Trump, on the same theme, said, “For Qatar, we want you back among the unity of responsible nations. We ask Qatar and other nations in the region to do more and do it faster.”
Trump also appeared to issue a more generalized call for changed behavior in the region, although he did not mention political reforms. “I want to call on all of the nations to stop immediately supporting terrorism, stop teaching people to kill other people, stop filling their minds with hate and intolerance,” he said. “I won’t name other countries, but we are not done solving the problem.”
Hours before the U.S. statements on Friday, the four Arab nations that cut ties with Qatar placed dozens of people and groups with suspected links to the nation on a terrorism blacklist, deepening the dispute.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt designated 59 individuals and 12 charities as terrorists in a joint statement published by the Saudi news agency. The list included the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as several Qatari-funded charities.
In a joint statement, the Saudis and their partners said they had created the list because of “the continuous and ongoing violations of the authorities in Doha of Qatar’s commitments and obligations.”
It included 18 Qatari citizens accused of financing terrorism, well-known business executives, politicians and top members of Qatar’s ruling family. In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Egyptian-born cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, 25 other Egyptian nationals were included on the list. Shiite Muslim groups in Bahrain, allegedly linked to Iran, were also on the list, as were citizens of Libya, Kuwait, the UAE and Yemen.
In its own statement, the Qatari government said that the list “reinforces baseless allegations that hold no foundation in fact.” Qatar, it said, leads the region “in attacking the roots of terrorism” by providing hope to youth through jobs, educating hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and funding local community programs to “challenge extremist agendas.”
“The Government of the State of Qatar strongly condemns terrorism in all its forms. We do not, have not and will not support terrorist groups,” said the statement. “Indeed, our position on countering terrorism is stronger than many of the signatories of the joint statement — a fact that has been conveniently ignored by the authors.”
The terror list came a day after Bahrain and the UAE declared it a crime, punishable by multi-year prison sentences, to show “sympathy or favoritism” to Qatar or criticize both government’s actions toward Qatar through social media or other ways.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera, the Qatari-funded television network, said on Thursday that its website and digital platforms were “under cyberattack” and facing “systematic and continual hacking attempts.”
Other regional players have come out in support of Qatar.
Late Thursday, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, approved legislation passed by parliament to deploy Turkish troops in Qatar, expediting a previously agreed pact on military cooperation between the two countries.
Turkey has also promised to send food and water supplies to Qatar, if needed. The diplomatic dispute has led to closures of Qatar’s borders and access to neighboring airspace, threatening Qatar’s regional trade relationships as well as the air routes of its national carrier, Qatar Airways.
At the State Department, Tillerson called on “the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockage against Qatar,” saying there were “humanitarian consequences” including “shortages of food, and families being forceably separated. Children pulled out of school.”
“We believe these are unintended consequences, especially during this holy month of Ramadan,” he said, “but they can’t be underestimated. The blockade is also impairing U.S. and other international business activities” and is “hindering U.S. military actions and the campaign against ISIS,” an acronym for the Islamic State.
Stressing the importance of GCC unity, Tillerson said the United States had spoken to all the leaders involved and “said to all of them, we know you are stronger together.”
Raghavan reported from Doha. Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington contributed to this report.