Gulf Cup kicks off today - Kuwait, Qatar to join naval coalition - Doha to raise gas output

DOHA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday said he hoped a dispute between a Saudi-led bloc and Qatar would "swiftly" come to an end amid emerging signs of a possible breakthrough in the Gulf crisis. However, he ruled out the closure of a Turkish military camp in Qatar, part of the Riyadh-led bloc's string of conditions to end the isolation of Doha.

"My wish is that the Gulf crisis will be swiftly resolved," Erdogan said at the Turkish military base, where around 5,000 troops are stationed. "Those who tell us to close down this base have yet to grasp the fact that Turkey was Qatar's friend in difficult times," Erdogan said. "Throughout our history, we have never let our friends face threats and danger alone, that we cannot do," he added.

Erdogan arrived yesterday in Doha on his first official trip to an Arab country since Ankara's forces intervened in northeast Syria last month against Kurdish fighters. During the visit, Ankara and Doha signed a number of economic and trade accords and agreed on enhanced cooperation in projects linked to the 2022 World Cup which Qatar will host. Ankara and Doha have grown closer since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with their former Gulf ally more than two years ago.

DOHA: Qatari Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Qatari capital yesterday. - AFP

Erdogan's visit comes at a critical time amid signs of a possible breakthrough in the crisis between Qatar and its neighbors - in what could be pushing Ankara to further bolster its political and economic relations with Doha. A decision of football teams from the Saudi-led bloc to play at a tournament in Qatar was seen to bear messages of a rapprochement. The Saudi and UAE squads arrived yesterday to compete in the Arabian Gulf tournament in Doha from Nov 26, despite their nations' two-year boycott of Qatar. Bahrain also said it would take part.

The bitter rift between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc came over accusations that Qatar supports extremist groups and wants closer links with Iran, the archrival of regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia. Erdogan's visit to Qatar was the third trip since the Saudi-led blockade began in June 2017, which led to rising Turkish influence in Doha. Erdogan attended the fifth meeting of the Qatar-Turkey Higher Strategic Committee at the invitation of Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Qatar News Agency reported.

The burgeoning relationship saw Turkey's military presence in Qatar increase and Doha pledge economic support to Ankara during last year's currency crisis. Doha declared its support for Ankara after it launched an offensive on Oct 9 against a Syrian Kurdish militia, but Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt have condemned Turkey's "aggression".

Andreas Krieg, a professor at King's College London, said the Qataris were put in a "tough situation" when Turkey launched its operation against Syrian Kurdish forces, considered by Ankara to be "terrorists". "They acknowledged Turkey's right to defend itself while disagreeing about the means and ways used by Ankara in pursuit of this objective," he told AFP. "There has been a lot of rumors about this potential disagreement following Qatar-critical coverage in the Turkish press, but in reality there has been no rift in this relationship between Doha and Ankara."
After the Gulf crisis erupted, Turkey was at the forefront of nations supplying Qatar with food and services, bypassing the blockade imposed by the Saudi-led nations. Qatar last year announced a $15-billion loan to Turkey's fragile banking sector and also gave a luxury jumbo jet - reportedly worth around $400 million - as a "gift" to Ankara. The two nations have similar policies over Islamist groups, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey's relations with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are rocky, and ties between Riyadh and Ankara worsened significantly after Washington Post contributor and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2, 2018. Cinzia Bianco, Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Erdogan's visit was "key" at this time. "Erdogan is trying to make sure that a rumored Gulf appeasement won't come at the expense of Qatar-Turkey relations," she said.

"Welcome to Qatar," the Qatar Football Association tweeted yesterday along with a heart emoji and a welcome video of the Emirati team arriving in Doha. Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah said earlier this month that the boycotting countries' decision to travel to Doha was "a clear indication of the progress towards solving the Gulf crisis". Other steps were being taken "which affirm we are heading in the right direction to reach positive results", he added, without giving details.

An official from the Cairo-based Arab League is to visit Doha for a conference during the tournament, raising hopes for mediation efforts. It is unclear if the boycott countries will ease their rules on citizens travelling to Qatar, which launches its Gulf Cup campaign against Iraq at Doha's Khalifa Stadium at 1630 GMT today. The UAE will face Yemen two hours later, while Qatar will not face any of the nations enforcing the embargo until its group-stage clash with the UAE on Dec 2. The match will be closely watched for the behavior of both the home support as well as any visiting fans.

Bahrain's Salwa Eid Nasser was given a warm reception after her 400 m gold triumph at the World Athletics Championships in Doha in October and her country's flag and anthem were both permitted. Qatar's national football team was forced to play without travelling supporters during the Asian Cup in the UAE at the start of the year, while security tried to ban the display of the Qatari flag. Advertising for the Cup dotted around Doha was quickly updated to include the flags of the three newly added competitors.

The boycotting countries had refused to participate in the previous Gulf Cup two years ago, which was originally scheduled to be held in Qatar just a few months after the crisis erupted. But they took part when the tournament was subsequently moved to Kuwait. Outside of Qatar, there have been glimmers of a possible endgame to the bitter spat which has seen the two sides trade barbs on everything from access to the holy city of Makkah to alleged Twitter hacking.

Leading Emirati politics professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an authority on the UAE's political thinking, tweeted that the end of the boycott could be in sight following the Gulf Cup announcement. Abdulla called the trio's decision "as political as it is sporting". "Football… may open the door for the travel of sports fans to Qatar to support their teams, which means necessarily lifting the travel ban to Qatar and the return of Gulf cohesion," he wrote after the announcement. Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and Yemen will also vie for the cup at the tournament which wraps up on Dec 8.
In a related development, Qatar and Kuwait have told the United States that they will join a US-led naval coalition in the Gulf which was established in response to a series of attacks on oil tankers, a US military official said yesterday. "Qatar and Kuwait have already told us they are going to join, so it is just a matter of time," US Army Colonel John Conklin, chief of staff of the coalition, said. He said they were expected to provide personnel and patrol boats. The coalition, based out of Bahrain, is known as the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC).

Qatar also said yesterday it would sharply boost its liquefied natural gas (LNG) production, already the world's largest, based on a rise in its proven reserves. Minister of State for Energy Affairs and CEO of state-owned Qatar Petroleum Saad Al-Kaabi said Qatar's LNG output of 77 million tons per year would increase to 126 million tons by 2027. Kaabi also announced that proven gas reserves in the North Field, which Qatar shares with Iran, had increased to 50 trillion cu m. Almost all of Qatar's gas reserves are located in the North Field, the world's largest gas field.

In addition, Kaabi said the field contains 70 billion barrels of condensates, or natural gas liquids, and massive quantities of LPG, ethane and helium. "These are very important findings which will have a great positive impact on Qatar's gas industry," Kaabi said in a statement. The new plans will raise Qatar's overall hydrocarbon production to about 6.7 million barrels oil equivalent per day from 4.6 million currently. Gas has helped fuel Qatar's rise to become one of the world's richest countries, transforming the peninsula state and helping it to successfully bid for the 2022 football World Cup finals. - Agencies