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'No Military Action Against Qatar, But U.S. Should Rethink Airbase'

An Eikon ship-tracking screen shows tanker traffic around Qatar over seven days in this June 6, 2017 illustration photo.
An Eikon ship-tracking screen shows tanker traffic around Qatar over seven days in this June 6, 2017 illustration photo.

The Emirati ambassador to the United States said on Tuesday there was no military aspect to steps taken by Arab powers against Qatar, which they accuse of supporting terrorism, but that further economic pressure could be applied.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar and imposed stringent economic sanctions on it. Doha denies their accusations that it supports Islamist militants and Shi'ite Iran.

As the Persian Gulf crisis enters its second week, Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates said Qatar's neighbors would "fairly soon" give the U.S. a list of specific actions Qatar must take before punitive steps are lifted. He said the list would likely include Qatari sanctions on bank accounts of individuals that Qatar's neighbors have already sanctioned — and possibly on the banks themselves.

"We've gotten fed up. We've had enough," Otaiba said.

In their bid to isolate Qatar by cutting off diplomatic ties, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have been emboldened by President Donald Trump, who has forcefully echoed their accusations that Qatar funds terrorist groups and foments instability in the Mideast. UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba said both his country and the U.S. had allowed "bad behavior" by Qatar to continue for "a very long time."

"If I want to be honest, I think the reason action hasn't been taken against Qatar is because of the air base," Otaiba said, referring to al-Udeid air base, not far from Doha. "The air base is a very nice insurance policy against any additional pressure."

The ambassador expressed the viewpoint that the U.S. should consider moving its air base out of Qatar. "Maybe someone in Congress should have a hearing and just say, you know, 'Should we consider moving it?'" Otaiba said. "And maybe not moving the entire base. Maybe just distribute to various countries so you don't have all your eggs in one basket."

He said he has been in contact several times with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to assure him the U.S. military base in Qatar, Al Udeid, would not be affected by the crisis."There is absolutely no military component to anything that we are doing," UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba told reporters in Washington.

Otaiba said the measures against Qatar were not an attempt to have the base moved "but if anyone asks we'd be willing to have that conversation." He pointed out a defense accord that the United States and the UAE signed last month would allow Washington send more troops and equipment there.

Moving U.S. air operations would involve a massive undertaking by the U.S. military, which coordinates its air campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan from Qatar.

The countries have designated dozens of people and entities with alleged links to Qatar as terrorists. When asked what further steps could be taken against Qatar, Otaiba said:

"We’ve designated 59 people and 12 entities. It’s likely that you could see designations of their bank accounts and perhaps of the banks themselves. And so there’ll be an escalation of economic pressure, again, short of a policy shift or negotiations that lead to a policy shift."

Otaiba said the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt were compiling a list of demands for Qatar that would be "handed over to the United States fairly soon."

He said they would broadly address the three areas of support for terrorism, meddling in the internal affairs of these countries and attacks through Qatari-owned media platforms.

Otaiba said the four nations are seeking a shift in Qatar's behavior through economic and political pressure.

"It’s not our goal to undermine the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) but at the same time we don’t want a member of the GCC undermining us," he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump stepped into the crisis by appearing to side against Qatar and accused Doha on Friday of being a "high level" sponsor of terrorism.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain welcomed Trump's demand for Qatar to stop supporting terrorism.

Otaiba said the White House was supportive of the Arab powers' position. Asked about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's call for the UAE and other Gulf countries to take de-escalation measures to ease the crisis, Otaiba said, "That's not going to happen."

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters