President Donald Trump has offered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to mediate the standoff between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition that has severed ties with the tiny country over support for extremist groups.Tillerson, who dealt with Qatari leaders for years as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., is skilled at bringing people together and is ready to help if needed, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. She added that Trump would rather that all sides work out the dispute among themselves.
The announcement came after Trump met with Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the White House earlier Thursday to discuss the crisis. Any role Tillerson might play would be complicated by conflicting messages from the administration, including Trump’s tweets on Tuesday in which he appeared to back Saudi Arabia over Qatar. Tillerson and other officials had refrained from taking sides after the crisis began.
A group of Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties as well as land, sea and air travel with Qatar on Monday, accusing the country of supporting Sunni extremist groups and Iranian-backed Shiite militants to destabilize the region. The crisis has thrust the U.S. into a delicate position because of its alliances with all sides—and because Qatar hosts the nerve center for U.S. air operation in the Middle East, including the fight against Islamic State.
The outlines of any U.S.-led mediation are unclear so far, and Nauert said she didn’t have details to announce. A Qatari diplomat told the Associated Press on Thursday that his country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, won’t travel abroad while the blockade remains in place. Kuwait is also working on a separate mediation effort.
On Tuesday, Trump offered what seemed an offhand endorsement of the Saudi-led move, writing on Twitter: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!”
The White House may have further fanned the flames of the crisis with a statement Wednesday condemning an attack in Qatar’s ally Iran that killed 12 people. While it said the U.S. grieved and prayed for the victims, it said countries that sponsor terrorism “risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” Iran’s foreign minister called the statement “repugnant.”
Tillerson has extensive experience in Qatar and the rest of the Gulf region. During a trip to New Zealand this week, Tillerson was asked how his past as an oilman might help resolve the crisis. Saying he’s dealt with Qatar’s leaders for 15 years, Tillerson replied, “We know each other quite well.”