February 11, 2020 / 9:32 AM / 5 months ago

Saudi-Qatar talks to end lengthy Gulf dispute falter - sources

DUBAI (Reuters) - Talks between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to resolve a bitter Gulf dispute broke down soon after starting, six sources said, leaving in place a political and trade embargo of Doha that hampers joint Gulf Arab efforts to counter Iran.

FILE PHOTO: Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the 25th Arab Summit in Kuwait City, March 25, 2014. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo

The discussions that began in October were the first glimmer of a thaw in the row that saw Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt sever political, trade and transport ties with Qatar in mid-2017.

The countries accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and cozying up to regional foe Iran. Doha denies the charges and says the embargo by its fellow Gulf Arabs aims to undermine its sovereignty.

Washington has strong ties with all the states involved, including Qatar which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the region, and sees the rift as a threat to efforts to contain Iran. It has pushed for a united Gulf front.

Qatar’s priority in the discussions was to restore free movement for its citizens to the boycotting nations, access to the airspace of those countries and reopening Qatar’s only land border shared with Saudi Arabia, four Western diplomats in the Gulf and two sources familiar with Qatari thinking said.

However, Riyadh wanted Qatar to first demonstrate a fundamental change in behaviour, particularly in its foreign policy that has seen Doha back opposing sides in several regional conflicts, three of the diplomats said.

Qatar’s government communications office and Saudi Arabia’s media ministry did not reply to a Reuters’ request for commment.

One diplomat said Saudi Arabia wanted a new arrangement with Qatar that would involve Doha making fresh commitments.

“That’s a non-starter for Qatar as there are so many foreign policy disagreements,” one of the diplomats said.

Two additional Gulf sources familiar with the talks said Saudi Arabia, which was representing the remaining boycotting states, ended the talks shortly after an annual Gulf summit in Riyadh in December that Qatar’s emir did not attend.

The Qataris “didn’t seem serious”, one of the sources said.

Riyadh had wanted a foreign policy win ahead of hosting the summit of the Group of 20 major economies in 2020 after its reputation was tarnished by the 2018 killing of a prominent journalist by Saudi agents, three of the Western diplomats said.

A source familiar with Saudi thinking said Riyadh had been hopeful about the talks but things were now “back to square one”.

The four boycotting states in 2017 presented Doha with a list of 13 demands, including closing Al Jazeera television network, shuttering a Turkish base, halting support for the Muslim Brotherhood and downgrading ties with Iran.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who visited Saudi Arabia for talks, told Reuters on Dec. 14 there had been “small progress” without elaborating.

But a Qatari source familiar with government thinking told Reuters that discussions had ended because demands on Qatar were unrealistic, saying “we weren’t going to become a proxy state”.

Reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and John Irish in Paris; Editing by William Maclean

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