US should rethink Qatar air base, says UAE Ambassador

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The UAE ambassador to Washington said the Trump administration should consider moving all or parts of the largest US military base in the region out of Qatar.

While moving the base is not an explicit goal of the isolation of Qatar by other Gulf countries, “if anyone asks we’d be willing to have that conversation”, Mr Al Otaiba said.

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have severed relations with Doha, cut travel and commerce links, and ordered most Qatari citizens to leave their countries, over their GCC neighbour’s support for a range of Islamist groups as well as its ties with Iran. Qatar denies the charge that it supports extremist militants.

Mr Al Otaiba said that “there is absolutely no military component to anything that we are doing”. But, he said, additional measures that increase economic pressure on Doha could be applied if the crisis is not quickly resolved.

“Maybe someone in Congress should have a hearing and just say, you know, ‘Should we consider moving it?’” the ambassador said in Washington on Tuesday. “And maybe not moving the entire base. Maybe just distribute to various countries so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket.”

Mr Al Otaiba said he has assured the US defence secretary Jim Mattis that the unprecedented crisis within the GCC will not affect operations at Al Udeid airbase that is Washington’s forward headquarters for its military’s Central Command, which runs operations across the region and is staffed by over 10,000 troops.

He suggested the US forces could be relocated to the UAE, which signed a new defence cooperation agreement with Washington last month that covers US military assets based in the UAE.

The base is a key factor in Qatar’s national security strategy to deter military action, and the ambassador suggested that Donald Trump should use this leverage to force Qatar to end its support for Islamist groups that the UAE, Saudi and other countries consider to be terrorist organisations.

The UAE and its allies will “fairly soon” provide a list to US officials of the specific steps they are demanding Qatar take in order for the crisis to be resolved, Mr Al Otaiba said. The specifics will fall within three broad categories: support for extremist groups and ideology; meddling in the internal affairs of neighbours; and Qatar-backed media that is used as a platform for attacking the UAE, Saudi, Bahrain and Egypt.

The ambassador’s remarks come as diplomatic efforts by regional and world powers have failed to produce a breakthrough, and as the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson attempts to spearhead a US-led mediation process in Washington.

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