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Trump takes side, backs Saudi-led efforts to isolate Qatar

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump threw his weight behind efforts to isolate Qatar on Tuesday, backing Saudi Arabia and its allies after they cut ties with Doha over claims it supports extremism.

In a surprise move against a key US ally, Trump suggested Qatar — home to the largest American airbase in the Middle East — was funding extremism as he tacitly backed the diplomatic blockade of the emirate.

“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” Trump said in a morning tweet, in reference to his trip to Riyadh last month.

“They said they would take a hard line on funding… extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

Trump’s broadside came as Kuwait’s ruler headed to Saudi Arabia in a bid to resolve the feud, the worst diplomatic crisis to hit the Arab world in years.

Saudi Arabia and allies including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced Monday they were severing diplomatic relations and closing air, sea and land links with Qatar.

They accused the tiny Gulf state of harbouring extremist groups and suggested Qatari support for the agenda of Saudi Arabia’s regional arch-rival Iran.

Energy-rich Qatar has long had strained ties with its neighbours but the move by Riyadh and its supporters shocked observers, raising fears the crisis could destabilise an already volatile region.

The dispute comes less than a month after Trump visited Saudi Arabia and called for Muslim nations to unite against extremism.

The rift was already having tangible effects, with dozens of flights cancelled, Qatari planes barred from regional airspace, and panic buying in Doha amid fears of food shortages.

Kuwait did not join fellow Gulf countries in taking measures against Doha, and its Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah departed Tuesday for Saudi Arabia for talks to resolve the crisis.

In a call with Sheikh Sabah on Monday, Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani had agreed to put off a speech to the nation in order to give mediation a chance.

 Qatar ready for talks

Several Kuwaiti lawmakers voiced support for the emir’s efforts.

“We pray to God to help him succeed in achieving Gulf unity,” veteran MP Ali al-Deqbasi said during a parliamentary session.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani signalled that Qatar was open to talks, calling for “a dialogue of openness and honesty” to resolve the crisis.

“We believe any issue could be solved through discussion and mutual respect,” he told Doha-based news channel Al-Jazeera.

UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said Tuesday on Twitter that a “guaranteed roadmap” was needed before it would consider mending ties.

Read More: Key developments in Qatar-Gulf crisis

As well as cutting diplomatic relations and ordering Qatari citizens to leave their countries within 14 days, the Gulf states and Egypt banned all flights to and from Qatar.

UAE carriers Emirates, Etihad, flydubai and Air Arabia, as well as Saudi Airlines had all announced the suspension of flights to and from Qatar as of Tuesday morning.

A total of 27 flights from Dubai to Doha had been scheduled for Tuesday and the Dubai Airports website showed all flights to Doha had been cancelled.

‘Eerie’ airport quiet

Qatar Airways, for its part, said it had suspended all flights to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt “until further notice”.

Countries including Saudi Arabia also banned Qatari planes from their airspace and Riyadh on Tuesday revoked Qatar Airways’ operating licence in the kingdom.

Doha’s Hamad International Airport was virtually deserted early on Tuesday. More than 30 flights were shown cancelled on airport television screens.

“This is the emptiest airport I have been in so far,” said Katie, transiting in Qatar en route to Thailand. “It’s exceptionally quiet, almost eerie.”

The crisis will have wide-ranging consequences, not just for Qatar and its citizens but across the Middle East and for Western interests.

Qatar is home to the biggest US airbase in the Middle East, Al-Udeid, where some 10,000 military personnel are stationed. As the forward headquarters of US Central Command, it is seen as crucial in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State group.

Qatar is also a major regional diplomatic player and international investor and is set to host the World Cup, football’s biggest tournament, in 2022.

But Qatar has also long been accused by its Gulf neighbours and Egypt of supporting extremist groups.

Read More: Qatar seeks Kuwaiti mediation after powerful Arab nations shun it

In announcing it was cutting ties, Riyadh accused Doha of harbouring “terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to destabilise the region including the Muslim Brotherhood, Daesh (IS) and Al-Qaeda”.

Riyadh also accused Doha of supporting Iran-backed “terrorist activities” in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Shiite-majority Bahrain.

“The measures are unjustified and are based on false and baseless claims,” Qatar said in response to Monday’s announcement.

Qatar independent streak

Gulf countries previously recalled their ambassadors from Qatar in 2014, ostensibly over its support for the Brotherhood, but Monday’s moves go much further.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies may have felt emboldened by Trump’s visit, which saw the new president clearly align US interests with Riyadh and lash out at Iran.

Qatar has an independent streak that has often angered its neighbours.

The emirate has directly and indirectly supported Islamist groups across the Arab world, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

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