By Ahmed Aboulenein
CAIRO, July 5 – Four Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to weigh possible further sanctions against Qatar on Wednesday in a dispute that has aroused deep concern among Western allies of the region’s ruling dynasties, key partners in energy and defence.
Regional newspapers with links to their governments suggested the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain might be ill-inclined to accept Qatar’s response to a list of 13 demands.
The editor of the Abu Dhabi government-linked al-Ittihad newspaper wrote that Qatar, with a population of two million compared to Saudi Arabia’s 31 million, was “walking alone in its dreams and illusions, far away from its Gulf Arab brothers”.
The four Arab states broke off diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing Doha of aiding terrorism and courting Iran – a regional rival of the Gulf states which shares interest in a gas field with Doha.
Qatar, whose international diplomatic and commercial profile has risen dramatically in 20 years, driven largely by gas revenues, denies the charges. Officials say the demands are so draconian they suspect they were never seriously meant for negotiation and were instead meant to hobble Doha’s sovereignty.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, on a tour of Gulf countries, said he was cautiously optimistic the feuding countries would reach a solution once they met for talks. “But it is also possible that it will continue to be difficult for some days,” he told reporters in Kuwait, where he met with the Gulf state’s ruler who is mediating in the crisis.
He said Kuwait’s mediation, backed by the United States, had already achieved a lot.
Qatar faces further isolation and possible expulsion from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional economic and security cooperation body founded in 1981, if its response to the demands fails to satisfy the Arab states meeting in Cairo.
The Dubai-based al-Bayan newspaper said in an editorial that all indications suggested Qatar had “belittled joint Gulf action and the Arab block”.
“Doha chose to enter into a dark tunnel…We are today at a new situation after the Qatari rejection, and it is a rejection that will not pass without a price, and Qatar alone bears responsibility for this reaction.”
Qatar’s response to the demands has not been made public.
Qatar has already made clear that, while seeking settlement, it is preparing for a more protracted dispute. Doha announced on Tuesday it planned to raise Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) production capacity by 30 percent in the next five years.
Qatar’s relatively limited trade ties with other Gulf states – largely food and construction exports – could also soften the effects of extended regional isolation.
The Arab countries have demanded Qatar curtail its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, shut down the pan-Arab al Jazeera TV channel, close down a Turkish military base and downgrade its ties with regional arch-rival Iran.
Qatari officials have said they are unwilling to compromise on issues they regards as impinging on Doha’s sovereignty.
“We do not understand the Qatari intransigence which is built on the principle of sovereignty that have been repeated in every reaction issued by Doha,” said the Arabic-language al-Riyadh newspaper, which reflects Saudi government thinking.
“The Gulf requirements did not impact on the Qatari sovereignty at all, but only asked that Qatar stop interference in their internal affairs.”