Libyan military spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmary speaks at a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, on July 4, 2017. Libyan military spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmary on Tuesday accusedQatar, Sudan and Turkey of supporting terrorism in the conflict-torn Arab country. (Xinhua Photo)
CAIRO/DOHA, July 6 (Xinhua) -- The month-long standoff between Qatar and a bloc of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia is to continue despite intensified diplomatic activity to resolve it.
After a meeting in Cairo Wednesday, foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt expressed regret over Qatar's "negative" response to their ultimatum issued two days ago.
They said the blockade imposed on Qatar would continue until Doha reverses its course, while indicating that they would take further steps in "a timely manner."
Analysts said that, despite the latest diplomatic efforts, the prospect for quickly resolving the crisis remains dim.
Though the Saudi-led alliance's response was milder than previously expected, the standoff could still escalate if the United States is unwilling to strongly get involved in meditating the crisis.
MILDER RESPONSE FROM SAUDI-LED BLOC
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told a news conference in Cairo Wednesday after the four-nation foreign ministers' meeting that Qatar's response to their demands was "generally negative" as it lacks content.
Doha's response reflected its failure to realize the gravity of the situation, and does not provide a basis for Qatar to retreat from its policies, Shoukry said.
The Saudi-led alliance cut their diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism, interfering in their domestic affairs and cultivating close ties with Iran, a Saudi rival. Doha has strongly denied the accusations.
Those countries also imposed sanctions on Qatar, by cutting off their air, sea and land links to the gas-rich tiny Gulf nation.
The four countries issued a list of 13 demands later last month to Qatar urging change of its policies, including closing Al-Jazeera TV, cutting diplomatic ties with Iran and ending its support to terrorism.
They gave Qatar another 48 hours to respond to their demands after a 10-day deadline expired on Sunday. Kuwait, which is not part of the bloc, relayed Qatar's response to the four countries on Tuesday, a day after Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani visited Kuwait.
It was not disclosed what is in Qatar's response, but it was nearly impossible for it to fully comply with the 13 demands.
But the Saudi-led bloc's response was much milder than expected, as it refrained from raising the tone of criticism about Doha and making further threats to widen the blockade.
On Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel concluded his three-nation tour to Qatar, UAE and Kuwait, in an attempt to mediate Doha's disputes with its neighbors.
Gabriel said there are sufficient possibilities to defuse the situation, while pressing for joint regional efforts against terror financing.
Analysts said that the Saudi-led bloc's restraint was based on two reasons. First, they need more time to further study Qatar's response and coordinate their position.
Second, the bloc needs to consult with the United States first, which hopes to calm down the situation, before making decisions on the next steps. The four foreign ministers agreed on Wednesday to hold another meeting in Bahrain soon.
Many believed that the measured response from the Saudi-led alliance was largely a result of pressure from the United States.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump held a phone talk with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the host of the four-nation foreign ministerial meeting, to discuss the Qatari crisis.
Trump highlighted the need for "constructive negotiation" between Qatar and its Arab neighbors, while calling on all the countries to follow their commitments to stopping financing terrorists and discrediting extremist ideology.
Mohamed Hussein, a professor of political science at the Cairo University, said Trump has not toned down criticism of Qatar for financing terrorism, while calling for talks to resolve the crisis.
Washington, which has a military base in Qatar to launch counter-terrorism operations, intends to benefit from the division among Gulf nations, while hoping to contain the current standoff from worsening to damage its interests, Hussein said.
POSSIBLE TO TOUGHEN BLOCKADE ON QATAR
Though the four Arab nations did not announce new sanctions on Wednesday, still they could strengthen the blockade on Doha, politically and economically, analysts said.
Hussein said the measures that could be taken by the Saudi-led bloc include freezing Qatar's membership of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League, two major organizations of Arab countries, and imposing sanctions on certain Qatari companies and individuals.
But tightening sanctions on Qatar could backfire politically and economically. Qatar could be pushed closer to Iran and Turkey, which have publicly sided with Doha in the latest standoff. But both Saudi Arabia and Egypt do not want to see Tehran and Ankara involved in Arab affairs.
Economically, as Qatar and its neighboring countries have close trade and economic relations, the Saudi-led alliance's blockade on Qatar would have negative repercussions on themselves. So they will be very careful in deciding on further economic sanctions on Doha.
Hussein also downplayed the possibility of resorting to the military option to resolve the crisis, citing Saudi Arabia and the UAE are deeply involved in the fighting in Yemen, while Egypt is facing increased threat of terrorism.
"As for a war, it is unlikely for several reasons. A war cannot start except through Egypt, and Egypt will not risk waging a war," he said.
QATAR'S POSSIBLE COUNTER MEASURES
Analysts said that three of the 13 demands put forward by the Saudi-led bloc would be very difficult for Qatar to accept, namely closing the Al-Jazeera TV station and affiliated channels, cutting off ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hamas movement in Gaza Strip, and stopping financial support to extremists.
Hussein said those demands are "hasty, exaggerated, tough and provocative," so that Qatar will not back down because it is humiliating and even related to the issue of sovereignty.
He said these countries should detail their accusations against Qatar and hold talks to discuss them before making the decision to cut off diplomatic ties.
Learning a lesson from the crisis, Qatar could revise its grand goals of becoming a great nation in terms of influence in diplomacy, media and sports, which are regarded by many as unproportionate to its size and power.
But as a super-rich nation, Qatar has enough wealth and confidence to hold some of its ground, analysts said.
Owning the third largest natural gas reserve in the world, Qatar could use it to counter the pressure from Saudi Arabia. It has decided to increase sharply the natural gas production by 30 percent by 2024.
Abdullah Saleh Badr, professor of economics at the Qatar University, told Xinhua that Qatar's increased gas export could have huge impact on the global oil and gas market and heighten pressure on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, which have already reduced their output to contain a price slide.
As part of its counter measures, Doha could also forge closer ties with Iran, Iraq and Turkey to stand up to the Saudi-led bloc. It is also possible that Doha quits the GCC in protest.
Hussein criticized Western countries, including the U.S., Germany and Britain, for their role in the Qatari crisis.
"They play on both sides. They want the crisis to prolong so they can play the mediation-and-pressure role and make benefits," Hussein said.
"This is why the crisis does not seem to be resolved very soon," he added.