By Stephen Kalin and Dmitry Zhdannikov
RIYADH/LONDON (Reuters) – Qatar’s foreign minister has made an unannounced visit to Riyadh, two sources told Reuters, amid signs that a 2-1/2-year rift among U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states could soon subside.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani met with senior Saudi officials last month, said one of the sources familiar with the trip, the highest-level visit 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 with de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
U.S. Senator Chris Murphy said the minister’s trip was “an important move that showed openness to some dialogue between the two sides”.
“At the very least, I think the Saudis seem sincere in trying to figure out the path forward,” he told Reuters
during a trip to Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and accuses its neighbours of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.
Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which has undermined Washington’s efforts to confront Iran.
“The United States and Kuwait are keen to have this resolved and help rebuild trust in the Gulf,” the first source said.
The boycotting nations set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including closing Al Jazeera television, shuttering a Turkish military base, reducing ties with Iran and cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
When asked about the visit, a senior Qatari official said Doha has “welcomed each and every opportunity to resolve the ongoing blockade through open dialogue and mutual respect of each country’s sovereignty.”
The Saudi government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told reporters last weekend Riyadh was still waiting for Doha to answer the demands.
Saudi Arabia, whose reputation was damaged by last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is trying to boost its global image as it takes over the presidency of the Group of 20 countries.
Two Western officials told Reuters early efforts at internal reconciliation on Qatar seem to be underway.
A soccer tournament in Qatar kicked off on Tuesday with teams from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in an apparent 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.
“We see the Gulf kiss (with noses) coming,” the diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Eric Knecht in Beirut, Writing by Stephen Kalin, Editing by Angus MacSwan)