Tillerson Kicks Off Middle East Tour To Defuse Persian Gulf Crisis

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to at least three Middle Eastern countries this week in an attempt to ease the diplomatic spat among key U.S. allies in the strategically vital Persian Gulf region.

Tillerson, who was in Turkey Monday, is set to visit Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where he will discuss a possible compromise to the crisis pitting Qatar against a Saudi-led bloc of countries that have levied harsh diplomatic and economic sanctions against it. The so-called “shuttle diplomacy” is a change in tactics for the Trump administration, which had previously chosen to let Kuwait mediate the dispute.

While Tillerson’s office isn’t expecting a definitive solution to come this week, officials are optimistic that the secretary of state’s presence will help restart stalled negotiations.

“We’ve had one round of exchanges and dialogue and didn’t advance the ball,” Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond told the Associated Press, adding that the U.S. is working with Kuwait to “hash out a different strategy.”

The alliance of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke off diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar in early June, accusing the tiny but wealthy country of supporting terrorist groups and Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East. Shortly after, the Saudi coalition issued a list of 13 demands that Qatar must fulfill in order to restore normal relations. The demands include shuttering Doha-based media network Al-Jazeera, cutting ties with Islamist groups, and expelling all Iranian and Turkish military elements working in the country.

Qatar has rejected the ultimatum and accused the Saudi alliance of using terrorism concerns as a pretext to temper Qatar’s influence in the Persian Gulf.

“This list of demands confirms what Qatar has said from the beginning — the illegal blockade has nothing to do with combating terrorism, it is about limiting Qatar’s sovereignty, and outsourcing our foreign policy,” Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed Al Thani, director of the Qatari government’s communications office, said in a statement in late June.

The Gulf dispute is a particularly sensitive diplomatic problem for the U.S., which counts both Saudi Arabia and Qatar as key military allies in the region. Saudi Arabia, a top customer for U.S. arms sales, has critical counter-terrorism ties to Washington, while Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command’s al-Udeid Air Base, the hub of U.S.-led operations against ISIS.

Tillerson has tried to stake out a neutral position on the crisis in order to avoid the perception that the U.S. is favoring one side over the other. He has publicly called on the Saudi coalition to end its blockade of Qatar while also recognizing its concerns over Qatar’s links to Iran and Shiite militia groups. (RELATED: Tillerson Urges Nations To End Blockade Against Qatar)

The White House, which has painted Qatar as the problem child in the Persian Gulf, has at times contradicted that position, saying it has “historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

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