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Britain urges Gulf states to ease blockade against Qatar

As Qatar Airways calls on the UN to declare a Gulf boycott against the carrier 'illegal'
A man walking past the Qatar Airways branch in the Saudi capital Riyadh, 5 June 2017 (AFP)

Britain on Monday urged Gulf states including Saudi Arabia to ease a blockade of Qatar and to find an immediate solution to the impasse through mediation.

Having not shied away from defending Saudi Arabia in the past, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Monday that, "I am also concerned by some of the strong actions which Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have taken against an important partner."

Johnson spoke after meeting Qatar's foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, in London.

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Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport ties a week ago, accusing Doha of backing terrorism. This has disrupted imports of food and other materials and caused many foreign banks to scale back business with Qatar.

Johnson said he would 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," he said.

Johnson will meet with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates later this week. 

Thani reiterated that Qatar supports Kuwait's mediation efforts to end the spat and is ready to engage in talks that conform with international law.

Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (Reuters)

"We in Qatar are prepared to engage in dialogue positively, but in accordance with the international norms and standards that govern any dialogue as per international law," Thani told a news conference in Paris on Monday.

The minister said Qatar "still had no clue" why Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport ties a week ago.

Kuwait's emir cautioned on Monday that the dispute could lead to "undesirable consequences," in comments carried by state news agency KUNA.

"It is difficult for us, the generation that built the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) 37 years ago, to see these disagreements between its members which may lead to undesirable consequences," said Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.

"I personally lived through the first building blocks of this council nearly four decades ago, so it is not easy for someone like me as a leader to stand silent without doing everything I can to bring brothers back together."

Sheikh Sabah has visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in the last week in an effort to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Land border closed

Qatar's normally bustling desert border with Saudi Arabia – and its only land border - was deserted on Monday, with a few dozen frustrated travellers bemoaning the ongoing rift between Gulf powers.

A week after the frontier was shut, soldiers in an armoured pick-up truck looked out over a barbed-wire fence at sprawling empty dust land separating Qatar from Saudi Arabia.

Indian migrants who work at the border in green uniforms lay on inspection platforms sheltering from the sun.

Normally, thousands of passengers and hundreds of trucks from Saudi Arabia pass through the crossing each day, bringing fruit and vegetables, as well as construction materials for projects that include stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.

A view shows Abu Samra border crossing to Saudi Arabia (Reuters)

Qatar's financial markets stabilised on Monday after a week of losses as the government showed it had ways to keep the economy running in the face of sanctions by other Gulf states.

At the land border, dozens of truck drivers had been stranded on the Qatari side. One Sri Lankan driver asked Qatari border guards if he could drive into Saudi Arabia if he agreed to leave his cargo, a tanker full of helium, behind in Qatar.

"We can do nothing," the border guard told him. "Saudi has shut the border. There is no way to pass."

Divided families

Staff said the closing of the frontier had divided families. Last week, a Qatari woman was forced to hand her two-year-old son to her Saudi husband across the border after Saudi authorities said she could not enter, Sultan Qahtani, a Qatari police major, told Reuters in his office.

"Qataris were affected because they were unable to see their relatives in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. One of my relatives told me he was unable to travel to Saudi to attend the funeral of a poet," he said.

"I pray to god that the Saudi border will be opened to preserve ties of kinship between Qataris and other GCC nationals. We must concentrate on these families who are apart now," he said, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, founded in 1981, which includes Qatar and its neighbours. Prominent Arabian tribes have lived for decades on both sides of the border.

On weekends, the land border is normally used by thousands of Saudis who cross to take advantage of Qatar's laxer rules and stay in hotels that serve alcohol. A few miles from the border a vast sea-front complex with an aqua park and white-washed villas is being built by the Hilton hotel chain for Saudi tourists. 

Qatar Airways urges UN action

Qatar Airways on Monday called on the UN's aviation body to declare a Gulf boycott against the carrier "illegal" and a violation of a 1944 convention on international air transport. 

Qatar Airways has said the ban against it is illegal (AFP)

The measures against Qatar include the banning of all flights to and from the capital Doha and shutting down the offices of the country's national carrier. 

The four countries have also granted Qatari nationals two weeks to repatriate and barred Qataris from transiting through their airports.

In televised interviews on Monday, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker called the move an "illegal blockade" and urged the United Nations' civil aviation branch to intervene.