January 31, 2019 / 11:46 AM / 21 days ago

China calls for harmony as it welcomes Qatar emir amid Gulf dispute

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a return to “unity and harmony” on Thursday as he welcomed gas-rich Qatar’s emir to Beijing, amid a dispute that has seen some Arab states led by Saudi Arabia severing relations with Doha.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (R) and China's President Xi Jinping attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

China has largely stayed out of the dispute, calling for the problem to be resolved via talks, but it has played host to senior Qatari officials since the spat began, including in December to the foreign minister.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic, trade and transport ties with Qatar in June 2017. They accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and cultivating ties with Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, Iran.

Qatar, which denies the charges, says the boycott seeks to curtail its sovereignty. The row has defied mediation efforts by Kuwait and the United States, which sees Gulf unity as essential to containing Iran.

It has shown no sign of being resolved soon. Qatar has been bolstering ties with its supporters, including Turkey, with trade between those two expected to have risen by more than half in 2018.

Meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Xi told Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani that regional cooperation was an important basis for prosperity in the Gulf region, Chinese state television reported.

Xi said China supports the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes both Saudi Arabia and Qatar — to seek an “appropriate resolution to disputes and contradictions via political and diplomatic means, to return unity and harmony between Gulf and Arab countries”.

“China is willing to continue to play a constructive role according to the wishes of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries,” Xi added, according to the report, which did not make direct mention of the Gulf rift.

China has traditionally played little role in Middle East conflicts or diplomacy, despite its reliance on the region for oil, but it has been trying to raise its profile, especially in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited Beijing in 2017.

However, China has had to walk a fine line, as it also has close ties with both Iran and Israel.

“OLD FRIEND”

In remarks in front of reporters, Xi called Sheikh Tamim “an old friend and a good friend”.

Sheikh Tamim told Xi that he was very happy with their personal friendship.

“We are ready to have bigger investments in China, in infrastructure or in any other field we see as important for us,” he said. “We are happy to provide China with liquid gas and we are ready to provide China with more in the near future. I am very happy to be in China.”

Last October, state energy giant Qatar Petroleum said it had signed a five-year agreement to supply China with 600,000 tonnes of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) per year.

Slideshow (9 Images)

Qatar’s state news agency said Sheikh Tamim and Xi had signed memoranda of understanding on diplomatic training, future trade delegations, and the creation of a road map for Qatar to take part in China’s Belt and Road initiative, an expansion of infrastructure and trade links worldwide.

Qatar Free Zones Authority also signed three MOUs including one with China Harbour Engineering Co (CHEC) to establish a clean energy bus assembly factory to serve the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Earlier in January, state-owned Qatar Airways said it had acquired a 5 percent stake in China Southern Airlines, in a move to gain access to the fast-growing Chinese market.

Additional reporting by Eric Knecht in Doha; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alison Williams

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