WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Qatar’s foreign minister on Friday criticized “reckless leadership” in the Gulf for a number of crises including the Gulf rift and Lebanon, taking apparent aim at Saudi Arabia.
The diplomatic crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have boycotted Qatar, has been brewing since the summer after the four countries cut diplomatic, transport and trade ties with Qatar, accusing it of financing terrorism. Doha denies the charges.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are fighting for sway across the region against a bloc led by Iran, which includes the heavily armed Lebanese Shi‘ite Hezbollah group.
Attention on the dispute has shifted recently especially in the wake of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s shock resignation announcement this month while in Saudi Arabia.
Hariri’s abrupt resignation and his continued stay in Riyadh have caused fears over Lebanon’s stability and thrust it into the bitter rivalry between Riyadh and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Hariri - whom Riyadh backs - say his movements are not restricted. Riyadh also denies accusations it forced Hariri to resign.
“We see a pattern of irresponsibility and a reckless leadership in the region which is just trying to bully countries into submission,” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said in Washington.
”What we are witnessing now in the region ... it’s something we just witness(ed) in recent history, bullying small countries into submission.
“Exactly what happened to Qatar six months ago is happening now to Lebanon. The leadership in Saudi Arabia and the UAE need to understand ... there is no right for any country to interfere in other countries’ affairs,” he told a group of reporters.
Asked to comment on those remarks, the Saudi Embassy in Washington’s spokeswoman, Fatimah Baeshen, said:
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has always been premised on regional stability, peace, and security. The Kingdom does not interfere with its neighbors’ domestic affairs.”
Riyadh says Qatar backs terrorism and cozies up to Iran. Qatar rejects the accusation and says it is being punished for straying from its neighbors’ backing for authoritarian rulers.
Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power less than three years ago, Riyadh has struck a more aggressive posture towards Iran, launching a war in Yemen, leading the boycott of neighboring Qatar, and ratcheting up its rhetoric against Hezbollah.
U.S. efforts to bring an end to the dispute have yet to bear fruit. Qatar hosts the largest U.S. air base in the region which is used in the international coalition fighting Islamic State.
Thani said Qatar’s Boeing C-17 transport aircraft, used by Doha for logistical support within the coalition, were forced to fly over Iran given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have blocked Qatari planes from flying over their airspace.
”So if we imagine that any emergency will happen, those C-17 planes which might have U.S. troops will land in Iran.
“So this is the impact of this blockade ... on the global coalition and on U.S. military operations there,” Thani said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Air Forces Central Command said the Qataris have flown ”nearly 30 mobility missions in support of
Coalition operations to defeat ISIS, moving more than a million pounds of cargo, including parts and supplies” since Doha recommitted its C-17 fleet to Operation Inherent Resolve in July.
“At this time, we are aware of no Qatari C-17 flights having traversed Iranian airspace while carrying Coalition cargo,” Lt. Colonel Damien Pickart told Reuters.
Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by James Dalgleish