Qatari PM attends Gulf summit but no mention of 2-1/2 year row

By Stephen Kalin
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets Qatar's Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani during the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 40th Summit in Riyadh

By Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) - Qatar's premier attended an annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, its highest representation since 2017, but there was no public mention of a 2-1/2 year boycott by its neighbors despite hints of a thaw.

Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani's presence follows an intensification of efforts to resolve the row among U.S. allies which shattered the GCC alliance amid growing Iran tensions.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and non-GCC member Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017 over allegations that it backs terrorism. Doha denies that and accuses them of trying to curtail its sovereignty.

Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift which undermined Washington’s efforts to form a united front against Iran, which is locked in a struggle for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.

A senior regional official told Reuters that Kuwait recently was working "extremely hard to come up with reconciliation... supported by the United States".

Efforts to end the row, including unannounced Qatari-Saudi talks in October, appeared to intensify after attacks in September on Saudi oil plants that initially halved the kingdom's output and pushed the region toward war.

Riyadh and Washington blame Iran for the assault along with earlier strikes this year on tankers in Gulf waters. Tehran denies involvement.

Saudi King Salman, who afforded the Qatari prime minister a traditional welcome on Tuesday, called for regional unity to confront Iran and secure energy supplies and maritime channels.


20-MINUTE MEETING

A closed-door meeting lasted barely 20 minutes before a final communique echoed the need to boost military and security cooperation and pledged to create a financial and monetary bloc by 2025.

After it was read out, Kuwait's ruling emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who has long pressed to resolve the Qatar dispute, commended the call for unity.

Addressing King Salman, he said: "God willing, the coming meetings will be better than past meetings."

Asked about mediation efforts, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said they were ongoing but better conducted away from the spotlight.

Two sources familiar with Saudi thinking said Riyadh has softened its stance on a list of 13 demands to lift the embargo, including that Doha cut links to the Muslim Brotherhood, close Al Jazeera TV, shutter a Turkish military base and reduce ties with Iran, with whom Qatar shares a giant gas field.

But little is known about the current state of negotiations, and the UAE and Egypt may still refuse to yield. Qatar's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey remain contentious.

"The onus lies with the one that caused the crisis, to reconsider erroneous policies that led to its isolation," senior Emirati official Anwar Gargash tweeted on Monday.

Gerald Feierstein of the Washington-based Middle East Center said the dispute was not expected to reach a definitive conclusion anytime soon, despite signs that the parties are inching towards reconciliation.

The Qatari premier last visited Saudi Arabia in May for an emergency security summit.

Asked about Lebanon, Prince Faisal said the Mediterranean state's stability was important to Saudi Arabia.

Faisal said he would not "pre-judge" Riyadh's actions at an international conference in France on Wednesday called to support Lebanon as it grapples with a political impasse and the worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.



(Editing by Michael Georgy, Andrew Cawthorne and Gareth Jones)