MUNICH: (From left) Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani, Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi and US Senator Chris Murphy attend a panel discussion during the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) yesterday. - AFP

MUNICH: Qatar's foreign minister said yesterday efforts to resolve a bitter Gulf dispute had not succeeded and were suspended at the start of January. The discussions began in October on a row in which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed political, trade and transport ties with Qatar in mid-2017.

"It's been almost three years," Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said at the Munich Security Conference. "We were not perpetrators and are open to any offer to resolve this problem. Unfortunately efforts did not succeed and were suspended at the beginning of January and Qatar is not responsible for this," he said.

Also at the Munich conference, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said yesterday no private messages or direct contact had taken place to ease tensions with Iran and that Tehran first needed to change its behavior before talks can happen. "Until we can talk about the real sources of that instability, talk is going to be unproductive," Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday traded barbs with European leaders over diminishing Western influence, rejecting as "grossly over-exaggerated" their claims that Washington had retreated from the global stage. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Pompeo sought to assuage European anxiety over the transatlantic bond under an unpredictable President Donald Trump, saying: "The West is winning and we're winning together." But he was immediately contradicted by French President Emmanuel Macron, who warned of "a weakening of the West".

The annual gathering of world leaders, generals and diplomats to discuss security challenges has been dominated by fears over the West's diminishing role in the face of a more assertive China and Russia. In his opening speech a day earlier, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested that the United States rejected "even the idea of an international community" and was acting "at the expense of neighbors and partners".

"Those statements don't reflect reality," Pompeo retorted. "I'm happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly over-exaggerated," he added, paraphrasing a famous Mark Twain quote. He said Washington was playing a key role in keeping Europe safe by reinforcing NATO's eastern flank on the border with Russia, as well as leading a multinational effort to defeat the Islamic State group.

"Is this an America that 'rejects the international community'?" he asked. Pompeo stressed the need to work together against threats ranging from Russia's territorial ambitions, China's military build-up in the South China Sea and Iran's "campaigns of terror" through proxy conflicts in the Middle East.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who also took to the stage in Munich, joined Pompeo in voicing dismay at the gathering's pessimistic tone. "There is a competition out there in so many areas, with so many different actors, but simply lamenting that we have lost our way will not provide us with a way forward," Stoltenberg said. "Europe and North America are indispensable partners."

But France's Macron echoed the German concerns. The US was undergoing "a rethink of its relationship with Europe", Macron said, strengthening his belief that the continent had to take charge of its own destiny. "We need a European strategy that renews us and turn us into a strategic political power," he said.

The US-European divisions were on stark display in the spat over Chinese tech giant Huawei. Washington has pushed hard for countries to bar Huawei from building their next generation 5G mobile networks, claiming its equipment can be used to spy for Beijing. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Huawei was the "poster child" for China's "nefarious strategy" to infiltrate and dominate crucial western infrastructure.

But key allies including Britain and France have resisted the pressure so far, agreeing to impose restrictions without going so far as to ban the company. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged Europeans to make "an independent and wise choice" while providing "a fair business environment for all companies".

In a nod to concerns about European dependence on Russian gas, Pompeo announced at the Munich forum that the US would finance energy projects in eastern EU countries. "The United States - through our International Development Finance Corporation, and with the support of the US Congress - intends to provide up to $1 billion in financing to the Central and Eastern European countries of the Three Seas Initiative," Pompeo told the conference. "Our aim is to galvanize private sector investment in their energy sectors."

The initiative is a club of 12 eastern and central EU countries that have grown increasingly concerned about the Russian giant in their backyard since Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. At a Three Seas meeting in 2017, Trump offered to supply the grouping with US liquefied natural gas so they would never be "hostage" to a single Russian supplier. Pompeo's announcement comes amid fierce US opposition to Russia's controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to double the country's gas shipments to Germany. Washington believes the pipeline will give Russia too much influence over security and economic issues in western Europe.

On Friday, Steinmeier had taken an indirect swipe at Trump in accusing Washington, China and Russia of stoking global mistrust and insecurity with a "great powers" competition" that could threaten a new nuclear arms race. He deplored the three big powers' approach to global affairs and, without naming Trump, took issue with his vow to "make America great again". "'Great again' - even at the expense of neighbors and partners," quipped Steinmeier, a former Social Democrat foreign minister whose comments on foreign policy carry authority.

As foreign minister in 2014, he was central to the so-called "Munich consensus" when German leaders said Berlin was ready to assume more responsibility in global affairs. Steinmeier pressed that point again on Friday, but not before bemoaning the foreign policy approaches of Russia, China and the United States. "Russia…has made military force and the violent shifting of borders on the European continent the means of politics once again," he said in the text of a speech for delivery at the opening of the conference.

"China…accepts international law only selectively where it does not run counter to its own interests," Steinmeier said. "And our closest ally, the United States of America, under the present administration itself, rejects the idea of an international community". The upshot was "more mistrust, more armament, less security…all the way to a new nuclear arms race," he said. - Agencies

In response, he said, Germany should raise defense spending to contribute more to European security and to maintain its alliance with the United States, recognizing that US interests were gravitating away from Europe toward Asia. Steinmeier called for a European policy towards Russia "that is not limited to condemning statements and sanctions alone". Europe, he added, "must find its own balance with China between intensifying competition between systems and the need for cooperation."