DUBAI – With just days to decide, Qatar on Friday weighed an onerous list of demands by its neighbors as a way out of a regional crisis, and a top Emirati official warned the tiny country to brace for a long-term economic squeeze unless it is willing to acquiesce.
Qatar did not immediately respond after receiving a clear set of demands for the first time, but the ultimatum was quickly rejected by its ally, Turkey, and blasted as an assault on free speech by Al-Jazeera, the Qatari broadcaster that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others are demanding to be shut down.
Qatar’s neighbors insisted the 13-point list of demands was their bottom line, not a starting point for negotiations. The Arab countries signaled that if Qatar refuses to comply by the 10-day deadline, they will continue to restrict its access to land, sea and air routes indefinitely amid mounting economic pressure on the Persian Gulf nation.
“The measures that have been taken are there to stay until there is a long-term solution to the issue,” Yousef al-Otaiba, ambassador to the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates, told a news agency.
Still, he suggested the penalties would only be economic and diplomatic, adding: “There is no military element to this whatsoever.”
The demands from Qatar’s neighbors amount to a call for a sweeping overhaul of Qatar’s foreign policy and natural gas-funded influence peddling in the region. Complying would force Qatar to bring its policies in line with the regional vision of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest economy and gatekeeper of Qatar’s only land border.
They include shutting news outlets, including Al-Jazeera and its affiliates; curbing diplomatic relations with Iran; and severing all ties with Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood. The news agency obtained a copy of the list in Arabic from one of the countries in the dispute.
Though Qatar is likely to reject the demands, the list answers the growing call from the United States and from Qatar for the countries to put their grievances in writing. It includes conditions that the gas-rich nation already has insisted it would never meet, including closing down Al-Jazeera.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar over allegations that it funds terrorism — an accusation Doha rejects but that President Donald Trump has echoed. The move has left Qatar under a de facto blockade by its neighbors.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to mediate and earlier this week called on the Arab nations to limit themselves to “reasonable and actionable” demands on Qatar. That call appeared to have been roundly ignored, and it was the Kuwaitis, who also offered to mediate, who delivered the list to Qatar on Thursday.
“This is an Arab issue that requires an Arab solution,” Otaiba said. “That’s why the Kuwaitis will take the lead in the negotiation.”
That’s just fine, the U.S. said. At the White House, spokesman Sean Spicer called it a “family issue” for the Arab nations and declined to say whether the newly articulated demands were legitimate.
“This is something that they want to and should work out for themselves,” Spicer said.
As the UAE and the others demanded Qatar terminate the Turkish military presence in the country, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said Friday the Turkish base aims to train Qatari soldiers and increase its security. According to the Milliyet newspaper, he also said that “no one should be disturbed” by the Turkish presence in Qatar.
“At the moment, there is no likelihood of bringing the matter back to the table,” he said.
Turkey has sided with Qatar in the dispute, and its parliament has ratified legislation allowing the deployment of Turkish troops to the base. The military said a contingent of 23 soldiers reached Doha on Thursday.
The head of Al-Jazeera’s English language service said the network remained committed to continuing its broadcasts.
“Any call to close to down or curtail Al-Jazeera is nothing but an attempt to muzzle a voice of democracy in the region and suppress freedom of expression,” he said by phone.
There’s also a demand for Qatar to stop funding other news outlets, including Arabi21, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) June 23, 2017
Qatar has insisted its neighbors want it to bend to their will on a much broader set of issues; as the crisis has dragged on, the U.S. has started publicly questioning whether ulterior motives are involved.
Resisting the demands could prove difficult for Qatar.
“Even as a first negotiating position, Qatar is in a very weak and fragile position. … The four states can afford to wait, but Qatar cannot,” said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. “This crisis could threaten the political stability of the ruling family in Qatar in the long term if it lasts.”
Underscoring the growing seriousness of the crisis, state-run Qatar Petroleum acknowledged Friday that some critically important employees “may have been asked to postpone” trips abroad “for operational reasons” due to the embargo. It described the move as “a very limited measure that could take place in any oil and gas operating company” to ensure uninterrupted supplies to customers.
Qatar’s neighbors also demand that it hand over all individuals who are wanted by those four countries for terrorism; stop funding any extremist entities that are designated as terrorist groups by the U.S.; and provide detailed information about opposition figures that Qatar has funded, ostensibly in Saudi Arabia and the other nations.
They also accused Qatar of backing al-Qaida and the Islamic State group’s ideology in the Middle East. Those umbrella groups also appear on the list of entities whose ties with Qatar must be extinguished, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the al-Qaida branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.
Qatar vehemently denies funding or supporting extremism but acknowledges that it allows members of some extremist groups such as Hamas to live in Qatar, arguing that fostering dialogue with those groups is key to resolving global conflicts.
The demands also call on Qatar to stop giving citizenship to wanted nationals from the four countries and revoke it for existing nationals from those countries where it violates their laws. In addition, Qatar must pay unspecified reparations.
More broadly, the list demands that Qatar align itself politically, economically and otherwise with the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional group that has focused on countering Iran’s influence. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led nations have accused Qatar of inappropriately close ties to Shiite-led Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s regional foe.
The Iran provisions in the document say Qatar must close diplomatic posts in Iran, expel any members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, and only conduct trade and commerce with Tehran that complies with U.S. and international sanctions. Under the 2015 nuclear deal, nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were eased but other sanctions remain in place.
The Revolutionary Guard has sent its forces to conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq. It is not known to have a presence in Qatar.
Cutting ties to Iran would be difficult. Qatar shares a massive and lucrative offshore natural gas field with Iran.
Gerges predicted Qatar will have to acquiesce to at least core demands such as its support for Islamists and its relations with Iran.
“The longer the crisis continues, the harder it will be for Qatar to be reintegrated to its neighborhood. … Its very existence depends on its neighborhood,” he said.
If Qatar agrees, the list asserts that it will be audited monthly for the first year, and then quarterly in the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.