Qatar crisis grinds on as top US diplomat leaves the Gulf

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The top U.S. diplomat concluded a week of shuttle diplomacy in the Persian Gulf crisis on Thursday bearing no promise of an imminent breakthrough, but he voiced optimism that Qatar and its four Arab neighbors might soon at least be willing to talk face to face.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to tiny, gas-rich Qatar for a second time for a lunch meeting with 37-year-old Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, following talks earlier in the week in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. As he flew back to Washington, Tillerson told reporters that the discussions had been “helpful” and that the U.S. planned to keep at it.

“In my view, there’s a changed sense of willingness to at least be open to talking to one another, and that was not the case before I came,” Tillerson said.

It was a far cry from a U.S.-brokered resolution to the crisis that has now spanned more than a month, and no meeting of the feuding nations has yet been announced.

Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil CEO with deep experience in the oil-rich Gulf, has been shuttling between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and mediator Kuwait since Monday trying to repair a rift that is dividing some of America’s most important Mideast allies. Ahead of the trip, the U.S. said the crisis was at an “impasse,” but on Thursday the State Department said that was no longer the case.

Tillerson’s clearest achievement was to secure a memorandum of understanding with Qatar to strengthen its counterterrorism efforts and address shortfalls in policing terrorism funding. That deal goes to the core of the anti-Qatar quartet’s complaints against the natural gas-rich state: that it provides support for extremist groups.