U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that a rift between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors had gone on for too long and was threatening regional unity needed to counter Iran.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and non-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Egypt cut diplomatic, transport and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism and their regional foe Shi’ite Muslim Iran — something Doha denies.
The United States, an ally of the six-nation Sunni Muslim GCC, sees the rift as a threat to efforts to contain Iran and has pushed for a united Gulf front.
“When we have a common challenge, disputes between countries with shared objectives are never helpful,” Pompeo, who is on an eight-day tour of the Middle East, told a news conference in the Qatari capital Doha.
“They never permit you to have as robust a response to common adversaries or common challenges as you might,” he added.
Gas-rich Qatar says the boycott is aimed at undermining its sovereignty and has started charting a course away from its Gulf neighbors, including forging new trade partnerships, strengthening its ties with Turkey and quitting OPEC. Those moves have deepened expectations that the row will not be resolved quickly.
“We’re hoping that the unity of GCC will increase in the days and weeks and months ahead,” Pompeo said, adding that Gulf unity was essential for a planned Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) that would also include Jordan and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have repeatedly said the dispute is not a top priority and assured Washington it will not affect defense cooperation.
Pompeo later told reporters that he had brought up the rift with officials in Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE. “It’s … not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday and I regret that,” he said.
Pompeo has used the regional tour, which included stops in Abu Dhabi and Cairo, to shore up support for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.
He will head next to the Saudi capital Riyadh, where he said the United States would ensure there is “full and complete” accountability on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi U.S.-based Washington Post journalist from Saudi Arabia.
“We will continue to talk about that and make sure we have all the facts so that they are held accountable certainly by the Saudis but by the U.S. as well where appropriate,” Pompeo told the news conference.
Khashoggi, a long-time royal insider who had become a critic of the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe the crown prince ordered an operation to kill Khashoggi, whose body was dismembered and removed from the building to a location still publicly unknown. Top Turkish officials have also tied his death to the highest levels of Saudi leadership.
Saudi officials have denied accusations that the prince ordered the murder, which has left the kingdom facing its worst political crisis in generations, strained ties with Western allies and focused attention on the prince’s domestic crackdown on dissent and the war in Yemen.
The sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, one of several Saudi women’s rights activists detained in the kingdom since last summer and accused of treason, pressed Pompeo to raise the issue with officials in Riyadh.
In a New York Times op-ed, Alia al-Hathloul described how her sister was allegedly tortured and threatened while in detention. “Even today, I am torn about writing about Loujain, scared that speaking about her ordeal might harm her,” she wrote.