WASHINGTON ― Qatar’s ambassador to the U.S. told HuffPost on Friday that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries’ demands on his nation are about suppressing press freedom and Qatari sovereignty, rather than the country’s alleged support for terror.
The comments from Meshal bin Hamad al Thani appear to be the highest-level public Qatari response yet to a list of demands the other Arab nations passed to Qatar on Friday, according to multiple outlets.
First revealed by The Associated Press, the list features 13 points, including reduced engagement between Qatar and Saudi rival Iran, an end to military cooperation between Qatar and Turkey, the closure of the Qatar-owned media network Al Jazeera as well as other outlets like Middle East Eye, and frequent reports from Qatar to the the other countries to ensure that its policies are in harmony with theirs.
“The list is not about terrorism,” Thani said. In a Washington Post opinion piece Thursday, he argued that Qatar’s critics have misrepresented its role in the region. Qatar sees itself as a mediator with extremist groups, but does not support them, Thani wrote.
The ambassador declined to comment further on Qatar’s view of the demands, saying authorities in the capital of Doha were still weighing how best to respond. It appears that Qatari officials have not yet responded to the AP, The New York Times and other outlets’ requests for comment on their next steps.
The anti-Qatar coalition has isolated the tiny Arab nation for nearly a month now, cutting off its only land passage, which leads into Saudi Arabia, and essential shipments of food and other products. Qatar has had to plug the gap with supplies from Turkey and Iran that come by air and sea.
But Thani’s remarks suggest that Qatar remains confident in its position. Middle East analysts have already criticized the list as too extreme and unlikely to de-escalate tensions, and the Saudi-UAE coalition appears to have overestimated U.S. support for its attempt to pressure Qatar.
The Trump administration finalized a major weapons deal with Qatar last week, and on Tuesday, the State Department suggested that Qatar’s neighbors might be more concerned about regional tussles for power than terror support. In a statement issued Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “We hope the list of demands will soon be presented to Qatar and will be reasonable and actionable.” His comment is thought to have prompted the list’s release.
President Donald Trump has thrice made statements critical of Qatar that appear to praise its neighbors. But he has not weighed in for nearly two weeks, and Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, both supporters of Qatar as a U.S. partner, are now the lead policymakers on the issue.
Qatar has already said its ability to shape its own foreign policy and its relationship with Al Jazeera are not on the table. It has also said the blockade must end before serious negotiations can begin.
Earlier, Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’ state minister for foreign affairs, accused Qatar of leaking the list to sabotage negotiations addressing the weeks-long rift between the Arab nations. He did not deny the authenticity of the list.
Qatar, however, accuses the UAE of leaking the list.
Tillerson, Mattis and others hope to wind down the crisis, given the U.S. stake in the American military base in Qatar, the largest in the region, and in unity against the self-described Islamic State, other militant organizations and Iran.
The unexpected squabble has already affected top U.S. security concerns: Qatar has been removed from a U.S.-backed coalition battling pro-Iran rebels in Yemen, Iran has sought to exacerbate the divide, and Bahrain, one of the countries that cut ties with Qatar, reportedly asked Qatari officials to leave an American naval base there despite their role in the fight against ISIS.
Tillerson has played a positive role, Thani told HuffPost. He expressed hope for a resolution brokered by the Trump administration and mediator nation Kuwait.
“This is an Arab issue that requires an Arab solution,” Otaiba said on Friday. His country and others will maintain restrictions on Qatar until they feel a solution is found, he added.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and others want Qatar to comply with their demands within 10 days.
This story has been updated with comment from Yousef al Otaiba.