The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has intervened in the Gulf diplomatic crisis for the first time, calling on Qatar to do more to clamp down on the funding of extremist groups but also urging Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to ease their blockade of Qatar.
With no sign of an end to the two-week-long clash between the UK’s closest allies in the Middle East, Johnson sought to strike an evenhanded note, urging all sides to step back from escalation.
Speaking after meeting Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, in London, Johnson called on Qatar to heed their neighbours’ concerns.
“Qatar is a partner of the UK in the fight against terrorism but they urgently need to do more to address support for extremist groups, building on the steps they have already taken to tackle funding to those groups.”
Four Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – launched an air and land embargo of Qatar last week, accusing the tiny energy-rich state of funding terrorism and interfering in their internal affairs.
Johnson added: “I am also concerned by some of the strong actions which Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have taken against an important partner, and urge them to ease the blockade on Qatar. I call on all states to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation and to find a rapid resolution through mediation.”
Before the meeting, Thani had told reporters he did not expect the UK to take sides, but added: “We are asking Britain, the US and all other countries to condemn the illegal measures such as the blockade against our country and the breakup of families. Families and kids are being taken away at airports and mothers are not allowed to stay with their children.”
Thani promised to take the other Gulf states to court over the air embargo, adding that the longer the dispute, the greater the cost for everyone.
The Qatari foreign minister also said the allegations of supporting terror organisations were false and a smokescreen for an attack on Qatar’s independent foreign policy. Only 0.3% of foreign Islamic fighters come from Qatar, and none have been involved in a terrorist attack in the Middle East or the west.
He added that the other Gulf states had never raised any detailed complaints before the embargo or subsequently. “We still do not have clarity why such actions have been taken,” Thani said, adding that while Qatar was prepared to listen to complaints, “no one has the right to impose a foreign policy on an independent sovereign country”.
He said Qatar could withstand any attempt to impose regime change, adding that any such effort would backfire on other Gulf states since the Qatari people were united behind the leadership. He promised that Qatar would not escalate the crisis by cutting off energy supplies to the UAE through the Dolphin pipeline. Such action could bring the UAE to its knees since Qatar provides more than a quarter of the Emirates’ gas supply. Demand is near its seasonal peak, with the holy month of Ramadan coinciding with rising summer temperatures that boost electricity consumption.
The dispute has the potential to upend longstanding Gulf relations, as well as strengthen the position of Iran, normally seen as an enemy by all Gulf state leaderships. Iran has offered to send food to Qatar, but so far the offer has been rejected as unnecessary. Thani said no decision had yet been taken on whether to ask Turkey to send troops to Qatar.
He said the Gulf Cooperation Council, the body that brings together all the main Gulf States, was unlikely to be able to go back to normal. “I don’t think it will operate as before,” he said.
Al-Jazeera, the Doha-funded broadcaster, would never be closed as a result of external pressure, he said. Other Gulf monarchies believe al-Jazeera selectively attacks them but avoids any criticism of Qatar’s ruling family.
On Thursday, the pan-Arab satellite network announced it was fighting a large-scale cyber-attack. “There were attempts made on the cybersecurity of al-Jazeera but we are combating them,” said a senior employee who declined to be named.