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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Arab experts remain sceptical about Doha’s willingness to engage in a process of de-escalation.
Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. (AFP)
LONDON - Qatar's foreign minister made an unannounced visit to Riyadh, two sources told Reuters, amid a two-and-a-half-year row between Doha and a Saudi-led Arab quartet.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani's visit took place before a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit scheduled for next month, fuelling speculation about a possible de-escalation in the row. Arab experts continue to be sceptical, however, about such an outcome.
Al-Thani met with senior Saudi officials last month, a source familiar with the trip said, the highest-level contact between parties on the two sides since May when Qatar's prime minister attended an Arab summit in Mecca.
It was unclear if the visit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, included a face-to-face meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, considered the de facto ruler of the country.
US Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, told Reuters during a trip to Bahrain: "At the very least, I think the Saudis seem sincere in trying to figure out the path forward."
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing terrorism. Doha denies the charge, arguing it is entitled to "sovereign policy positions."
Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift.
The boycotting nations set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including closing Al Jazeera television station, shuttering a Turkish military base, reducing ties with Iran and cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood. The reported trip by the Qatari FM fuelled speculation about Doha's willingness to accommodate the demands of its Gulf neighbours, especially regarding severing its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic extremists in general. The Brotherhood is considered a terrorist organisation by many of the GCC countries and Egypt.
When asked about the foreign minister's visit, a senior Qatari official told Reuters Doha has "welcomed each and every opportunity" to resolve the current row "through open dialogue and mutual respect of each country's sovereignty."
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in November that Riyadh was still waiting for Doha to answer the demands.
Two Western officials told Reuters early efforts at internal reconciliation on Qatar seem to be underway. Arab experts have, however, expressed scepticism about Doha's readiness to change course in matters of regional policy. They cite recent indications of continued Qatari proximity to Turkey and Iran and the lack of any change in its stances towards Islamists.
They say a soccer tournament in Qatar that kicked off November 25 with teams from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain should not be overplayed as a sign of improving ties.
A Gulf Arab diplomat said a regional summit expected early next month in Riyadh could lay the groundwork for improving ties, which is more likely now than at any recent time, if Doha delivers tangible evidence of a change of course in its regional policies.
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