U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Wednesday with the king of Saudi Arabia and officials from other countries lined up against Qatar as he works to end a rift that has left the tiny, energy-rich state isolated from its neighbors.
His trip from Kuwait to the western Saudi city of Jiddah follows talks the previous day with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. He has also held discussions with the ruler of Kuwait, who is mediating the dispute.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain severed relations with Qatar and cut air, sea and land routes with it more than a month ago, accusing it of supporting extremist groups. Qatar denies the allegations.
Tillerson met with Saudi King Salman following his arrival in the Red Sea city and later sat down for talks with foreign ministers from the anti-Qatar quartet.
He will likely press the bloc to ease up on some of its demands after he secured a deal with Qatar on Tuesday to intensify its fight against terrorism and address shortfalls in policing terrorism funding.
The four countries last month issued a tough 13-point list of demands to Qatar that included shutting down its flagship Al-Jazeera network and other news outlets, cutting ties with Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, limiting ties with Iran and expelling Turkish troops stationed in the country.
Qatar has rejected the demands, saying that agreeing to them wholesale would undermine its sovereignty.
The head of Qatar’s government communication office, Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed Al Thani, on Tuesday accused the quartet of organizing “a smear campaign in the international media to damage Qatar’s reputation” and said they are “not interested in engaging in honest negotiations to resolve our differences.”
The anti-Qatar bloc took partial credit for the U.S. counterterrorism deal Qatar signed Tuesday, saying it was the result of “repeated pressures and demands” by them and others, but said it fails to go far enough.
While welcoming U.S.-led efforts to dry up terrorist funding, they maintained a hard line that Qatar must meet their list of what they said were “fair and legitimate demands.”
“The quartet affirms that the measures they have taken were motivated by the continuous and diversified activities of the Qatari authorities in supporting, funding and harboring terrorism and terrorists, as well as promoting hateful and extremist rhetoric and interfering in the internal affairs of states,” they said in a joint statement.
The deal struck between Washington and Doha essentially enhances cooperation between the two countries and falls far short of the sweeping demands made by the Arab quartet for Qatar to change its policy of supporting opposition Islamists in the region.
The group has mixed its accusations that Qatar supports extremists with demands that it end support for political dissidents that they have branded as terrorists. That broad definition of terrorism is seen as an overreach by Western allies, which do not view groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organizations.
Saudi commentators were quick to criticize the result of Tillerson’s visit to Qatar.
“What makes Wednesday’s meeting in Jiddah difficult is that Tillerson has, since the beginning of the crisis, appeared to be taking the Qatari side,” Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the general manager of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite news channel, wrote in a column published in the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
“He has to realize that he will be further complicating an already complex matter and prolonging the crisis,” he added, emphasizing that the goal of the four Arab countries is to change Qatar’s “agenda.”
Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily Arab News, framed the security agreement signed between the U.S. and Qatar as a win for the quartet, but added that “it is not time to party just yet.”
The squabble among five of its Mideast allies has put the United States in an uncomfortable position and risks complicating the Pentagon’s operations in the region.
Qatar hosts al-Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military installation in the Middle East and hub for U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, while American surveillance planes and other aircraft fly from the UAE.