Qatar’s neighbours have described its response to a list of demands as not serious and said they will continue their blockade of the tiny, wealthy emirate, as the bitter diplomatic row in the Gulf saw no sign of abating.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut off ties with Qatar on 5 June, accusing it of supporting terrorism. On 22 June they issued a 13-point list of demands – including ending support for the Muslim Brotherhood and closing broadcaster al-Jazeera – to end the standoff and gave Qatar 10 days to comply.
That deadline was extended by 48 hours on Sunday, when Qatar sent a letter to Kuwaiti mediators effectively refusing to engage with the demands.
Speaking after a meeting in Cairo on Wednesday of the foreign ministers from the four blockading nations, Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry said Qatar’s response “was overall negative and lacked any content”.
Qatar lacked “understanding of the seriousness and gravity of the situation”, Shoukry said, reading from a joint statement.
Existing sanctions, including a land and air blockade, would remain in place, the statement said, and further measures would be taken at the appropriate time.
However, the Saudi-led coalition held back from an immediate escalation of the dispute by declining to impose extra sanctions or expel Qatar from the six-member Gulf cooperation council.
Some Gulf diplomats had spoken of disinvestment from Qatar, or sanctions on pro-Qatar third parties.
The decision not to respond immediately with fresh measures may reflect pressure from western capitals to ease the dispute, and the effectiveness of Qatar’s campaign to present itself as an innocent victim of an attempt to meddle with its foreign policy.
In perhaps a decisive intervention, Donald Trump spoke with the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi on Wednesday, “urging all parties to negotiate constructively to resolve the dispute”.
According to the White House, the US president “reiterated the need for all countries to follow through on their commitments at the Riyadh summit to stop terrorist financing and discredit extremist ideology”. The tone was more balanced than Trump’s previous statements, which had offered unbridled support for the Saudis.
The US has more than 10,000 troops stationed in Qatar, and can ill afford a military conflict between its Gulf allies, as it seeks to build unity against Iran.
Many western capitals have been warning Saudi not to push the dispute to a level that ends up with Qatar forced into the hands of Iran.
The Cairo decision leaves the dispute frozen, with Qatar insisting it can survive the boycott, but increasingly dependent on Iran and Turkey for military and economic support. The political and economic boycott will continue until Qatar changes its policies for the better, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference.
Saudi Arabia insisted any measures it takes will be in compliance with international law, an issue that may come more important if the dispute ends up being referred to the UN security council. The Saudi-led states say they are mounting a boycott, and not a blockade, arguing Qatar’s planes can fly out of Doha to the East, and still reach destinations such as London.
Earlier on Wednesday the Qatar foreign minister insisted his country will not accept any plan that breaches international law or interferes with its sovereignty.
Speaking at Chatham House in London, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani accused Saudi Arabia and its allies of “demanding that we must surrender our sovereignty as the price for ending the siege”.
His country was prepared for a long battle, he said, adding: “What we’ve done in the last few weeks is develop different alternative for ways to ensure the supply chain for the country not to be cut off.”
“Even if the blockade is lifted, we have to rely on ourselves and ensure we deliver a World Cup that is attractive to the world,” he said. Qatar is due to host the World Cup in 2022.
Responding to accusations that it was now too close to Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran, he said Doha had to live alongside Tehran since the two states shared a gas field.
He also insisted the other Gulf states had no powers to eject Qatar from the Gulf Co-operation Council, a trade and security bloc, arguing decisions can only be taken by the GCC by consensus, implying Kuwait and Oman would not endorse the punishment.
Al-Thani described the Saudi demands as “not reasonable or actionable”, adding “the blockade was extraordinary, unprovoked and hostile”.
Presenting Qatar as a modern state open to dialogue, compared with the neighbouring regimes, he said: “We believe that this entire campaign is merely driven by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and these are the countries that we need to engage to find out what are the real problems and what are the real grievances.”
The demand, he said, would mean “Qatar was asked to curtail free expression, hand individual people over to torture, reduce its defence capabilities, go against international law, outsource its foreign policy to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, literally sign an open cheque to the blockading countries to pay an unlimited amount of money described as compensation”.
He continued: “The ultimatum did not only demand the shutting down of Al Jazeera, but outlets based here in the UK that provide a free press for the people of the Middle East.
“Reading between the lines the blockading countries were demanding we must end our sovereignty as the price for the ending of the siege something they knew Qatar would never do.”