Asia-Middle East Relations

UN and Russia attempt to break deadlock over Qatar blockade:

The UN and Russia are set to begin separate tours of the Gulf in an effort to end the deadlock in the diplomatic row between Qatar and the blockading countries led by Saudi Arabia. Delegations will tour the region as the boycott enters its third month. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will begin his tour today followed by the Russians, who will send their team on Sunday for a three day visit.

The trip was announced by Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric at a press conference in New York yesterday. Dujarric said that Kuwait would be the first leg of the UN chief’s visit to the region, where he will meet the Emir and other senior officials on Sunday to discuss the situation in the region.

The Secretary General’s visit follows multiple efforts to end the blockade against Qatar. The US State Department is said to be “very concerned” about the continuation of the crisis, having itself failed to break the deadlock.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a news conference that the crisis has gone on for too long, stressing the need to reduce the rhetoric between the parties. Earlier this month Saudi state TV sparked outrage by suggesting that a Qatari passenger jet could be shot down by a missile if it enters Saudi airspace.

While it’s not yet clear what impact Guterres will have in uniting the parties, his visit comes on the back of what appears to be failed American attempts to exert pressure on the blockading countries to end their siege on their neighbour. While the US seems reluctant to take a heavy-handed approach against its ally Saudi Arabia, it is desperate to get the blockade lifted against one of its other major allies in the Gulf. Over ten thousand US troops are housed in the strategically important Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Washington, however, appears not to be standing still as the row takes its course. On Wednesday it made a surprise announcement to withhold a $290 million aid package from Egypt — one of the countries supporting the blockade — apparently because of its dire human rights record, although Cairo’s links with North Korea may also be a reason for the move. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson singled out Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by naming and shaming both countries for their poor record on religious freedom.

These are just two of the most recent examples of the soft touch approach adopted by the US to exert pressure on the blockading states. Previously, the State Department questioned Gulf motives for the boycott of Qatar. Senior US intelligence officials have also accused one of the main backers of the boycott, the UAE, of hacking Qatar’s state news agency and planting a fake news story that sparked the diplomatic row in the first place.

A serious concern for the US is for Doha to move into the orbit of Russia and Iran. Yesterday the Qatari government announced that it was reinstating its ambassador to Iran having recalled the official in January after Saudi Arabia cut ties with the Islamic Republic, accusing it of failing to protect the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

More worrying for Washington is the burgeoning economic and business ties between Moscow and Doha as well as Russian weapons sold to the Qataris. Moscow is keen to stamp its authority and has announced that it will dispatch Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the weekend for a three day tour of the region to mediate between the parties. The Russians are believed to want a new realignment in the Middle East and the diplomatic row is seen as a window of opportunity to break America’s monopoly in the region.

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