KUWAIT CITY — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday ended his first stab at mediating a bitter spat in the Persian Gulf region, an effort that took him to three countries over four days but yielded little discernible progress in resolving the dispute.
Tillerson headed home after meeting with Qatari officials to brief them on his talks Wednesday with diplomats from four Arab countries leading a trade and diplomatic boycott against Qatar — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
From the beginning, State Department officials tried to tamp down expectations that much, if anything, would be accomplished on the trip. Last week, spokeswoman Heather Nauert warned that the quarrel may not be settled for months.
Although U.S. officials noted that Tillerson was just supporting the efforts of Kuwait, the official mediator, his first foray into shuttle diplomacy has thrust him into the forefront of the standoff.
His inability to resolve the dispute was made more awkward by a public gambit that Tillerson made Tuesday, signing a memorandum of understanding that says Qatar and the United States will cooperate in blocking channels used to funnel money to terrorists. The charge that Qatar supports extremists is at the heart of the Arab anger toward the tiny Persian Gulf emirate. The joint agreement telegraphed to the boycotting countries Tillerson’s stated position that every state in the region should do more to counter terrorism and not waste time on regional disagreements.
Tillerson’s midday meeting Thursday in Qatar’s capital, Doha, with the Kuwaiti and Qatari foreign ministers had buoyed expectations that he was relaying messages that could lead to negotiations. But when the diplomats emerged to pose for photographs, they ignored questions from reporters asking if they were closer to a resolution or if more meetings were planned.
One snippet of overheard conversation suggested that things had not gone well.
“Hope to see you again under better circumstances,” Mohammad bin Hamad al-Thani, the brother of Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said as they shook hands before Tillerson departed.
The Saudi-led bloc of countries on June 5 cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, suspended all their flights into and out of Doha and closed the peninsular state’s only land border — with Saudi Arabia. Since then, Qatar has used ingenuity to meet some of its basic needs. A wealthy Qatari businessman began flying in the first of about 4,000 Holstein dairy cows to provide milk. Turkey and Iran are helping to import food, and Iran allows Qatar to use its air and sea lanes.
On the surface, the boycott, which Qatar calls a blockade, is about Qatar’s alleged financial support to Islamist groups. But the boycotting Arab countries issued 13 broad demands over other issues such as closing the Qatar-based television network Al Jazeera and other news outlets. They also want Qatar to be less friendly toward archrival Iran, cut ties with extremist groups and expel Turkish troops based there. Qatar has rejected the demands as an infringement on its sovereignty.
The feuding countries are all U.S. allies, and Tillerson worries that the flare-up is a diversion from priorities such as countering terrorism and isolating Iran. Qatar hosts the region’s largest U.S. military base, where 11,000 Americans work. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, and U.S. surveillance planes fly from the United Arab Emirates.
But even Tillerson’s clearest diplomatic accomplishment on the trip seemed to provide fodder for more discord.
After he signed the agreement with Qatar on impeding financial networks for terrorists, the Qataris boasted that they were the first in the region to sign such a pact and urged the Arabs allied against them to do the same. The four countries heading the embargo claimed credit for pressuring Qatar into signing, and simultaneously dismissed it as “insufficient” to end their embargo.
For now, the impasse shows no sign of ebbing.