Saudis insist no blockade on Qatar as Gulf crisis simmers


Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi Arabia insisted on Tuesday that its neighbour Qatar was not under blockade as a Gulf diplomatic dispute escalated amid increasing international concern over its effects on ordinary people.

The gas-rich emirate's only land border is with the Saudi kingdom, and the closure of both it and Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati airspace to Qatar Airways flights has caused major disruption.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in Washington for talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, insisted that moves to isolate Qatar were reasonable.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies accuse Qatar of supporting "terrorism" in the region, while Doha's supporters have warned of a humanitarian crisis.

"There is no blockade of Qatar. Qatar is free to go. The ports are open, the airports are open," Jubeir said alongside a silent Tillerson who had called last week for the embargo on Qatar to be "eased".

"The limitation on the use of Saudi airspace is only limited to Qatari airways or Qatari-owned aircraft, not anybody else," Jubeir said.

"The seaports of Qatar are open. There is no blockade on them. Qatar can move goods in and out whenever they want. They just cannot use our territorial waters."

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a Doha ally, denounced Qatar's economic and political isolation.

"Taking action to isolate a country in all areas is inhumane and un-Islamic," Erdogan said in televised comments Tuesday.

- 'Death sentence' -

In his strongest remarks yet on the crisis, Erdogan added that "a death sentence had in some way been pronounced" on Qatar.

Turkey is in a delicate position as Ankara regards Qatar as its chief ally in the Gulf, but it is also keen to maintain its improving relations with regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia.

Ankara also is eager to maintain workable relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's foe with whom Doha's critics say Qatar maintained excessively close ties.

Erdogan was to hold three-way phone talks on the crisis later Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron and Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.

Doha's ambassador to the European Union, Abdul Rahman Al Khulaifi, said Tuesday Qatar was "astonished and surprised when we hear voices who say we are supporting terrorism".

"These accusations... it doesn't have any base, any logic to it," he said.

"You can disagree politically with your neighbours, but why do you get the people of the region involved in it?" the envoy asked.

The Gulf states on June 5 ordered Qataris to leave within 14 days and also banned their own citizens from travelling to the emirate.

The knock-on effects of the crisis are not confined to the Gulf.

Al-Udeid, the largest US airbase in the Middle East, is in Qatar and is a key facility in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman discussed the crisis on Tuesday, with Putin warning that isolating Qatar would make finding a peaceful end to the war in Syria more difficult.

- Resolution mechanism -

Their talks "touched on the aggravated situation around Qatar, which unfortunately does not help consolidate joint efforts in resolving the conflict in Syria and fighting the terrorist threat," a Kremlin statement said.

Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran called for a permanent mechanism in the Gulf to resolve issues such as the current crisis.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in Norway, said it was "absolutely imperative" to resolve the row through dialogue and to "establish a permanent mechanism for consultation, conversation and conflict resolution in our region."

He said this could be along the lines of the 1975 Helsinki accords signed during the Cold War to reduce tensions between Western and Communist nations.

As the crisis simmered, Washington's envoy to Doha tweeted on Tuesday that she was leaving her post.

Dana Shell Smith did not say why she was stepping down, but in Washington officials said she had made a personal decision to leave earlier this year after a normal three-year tour.

Smith was appointed ambassador by US President Donald Trump's predecessor Barack Obama in 2014.

Last month in another tweet she appeared to express dissatisfaction with political events back home.

After Trump's dramatic sacking of FBI director James Comey, she wrote: "Increasingly difficult to wake up overseas to news from home, knowing I will spend today explaining our democracy and institutions."