AP Interview: Qatar says Gulf snub in Afghan signing unwise

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Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of of the peace signing ceremony between the United States and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020. – Washington and the Taliban are set to sign a landmark deal in Doha that would see them agree to the withdrawal of thousands of US troops from Afghanistan in return for insurgent guarantees. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The tiny nation of Qatar expressed disappointment Sunday that nearly all of its Gulf neighbors snubbed invitations to attend the weekend peace signing ceremony between the U.S. and the Taliban.

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told The Associated Press in an interview that the presence of Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati officials at Saturday’s event in Doha could have been an opportunity to signal unity amid a festering, nearly three-year-old crisis among the Gulf Cooperation Council members that has left Qatar isolated.

“We were hopeful that our GCC brothers and neighbors would join us in yesterday’s ceremony,” al Thani said. “We invited them for the ceremony, but unfortunately they didn’t show up.”

Instead, he said their absence showed a continuing “absence of wisdom” among Qatar’s neighbors at a time when tensions in the Middle East, especially with Iran, are running high. Oman was the only GCC member to send its foreign minister.

“We were hoping to see them participating with us because we believe it is a cooperative approach between all the group of friends of Afghanistan,” he said, adding later: “We have, unfortunately, an absence of wisdom. In some countries in the region we want them to be more wise.”

Hosting and facilitating the crucial talks between the Taliban and the U.S. was a diplomatic coup for regionally isolated Qatar. It helps to strengthen the country’s strategic importance, not just as a major gas exporter and host to a sprawling U.S. military base, but also as a U.S. and European ally that can engage with a range of players, like the Taliban.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, welcomed the signing of the peace agreement. In its statement, it made no mention of Qatar’s role, only saying that the agreement helps to restore stability in Afghanistan and benefits the region’s security.

American officials had hoped all the Gulf Arab states would participate in the ceremony at which the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace deal aimed at ending 18 years of war. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who witnessed the signing of the deal, alluded to the Gulf crisis in a separate meeting with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha on Saturday.

The two discussed “the importance of a united GCC in standing against the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activity,” according to a U.S. readout of the meeting.

Oman was the lone GCC member to send its foreign minister to the ceremony and Pompeo, who visited Muscat just two weeks ago, made a point of greeting Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi Abdullah at the event.

Despite U.S. encouragement to the other members of the GCC, Al Thani said Qatar had received no response to its invitations, which were sent despite a January breakdown in talks aimed at resolving the crisis. The GCC has been split by a rift between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on the other since 2017.

Al Thani said Qatar had still received no explanation for the suspension of the talks in January.

“There is no clear reason for why it’s been suspended,” he said. “It was very surprising for us also given the timing with everything that is happening in the region. We believe that this is the time that should unite everyone toward one goal with all this turbulence that’s happening with Iraq and Iran and the others. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen.”

Al Thani lamented that the crisis, which has seen Qatar blockaded by its neighbors and caused economic distress, was lingering at a time of extreme tensions.

“We think a united GCC is good for everyone, it’s good for the United States, it’s good for the stability of the region,” he said. “The GCC was, at a certain point of time, the center of stability in the Middle East region. And, unfortunately, this rift has changed this perception about the GCC and it’s become like a source of turbulence in the region.”

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy and Fal Abuelgasim in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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