Secretary of State Rex Tillerson canceled a trip to Mexico next week to focus on resolving a crisis in the Persian Gulf sparked by a Saudi-led coalition’s move to isolate Qatar for supporting terrorism.
Tillerson had been expected to go to Cancun for less than 24 hours Monday for a meeting of the Organization of American States, where the main focus is to be Venezuela’s political crisis. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will go instead, the State Department said in a statement Friday.
“The Secretary of State will continue his efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East region through in-person meetings and phone conversations with Gulf and regional leaders,” the department said. It said Tillerson has “made more than a dozen phone calls and participated in several in-person meetings.”
The statement marked the first confirmation from the U.S. that Tillerson, who has met with top officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in recent days, is formally trying to mediate a solution to the Qatar conflict. Shortly after the crisis broke out, President Donald Trump offered up Tillerson as a mediator, hoping he could take advantage of ties forged with regional leaders during his years as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp.
The crisis began earlier this month when Qatar’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., severed diplomatic, trade and transport links in a move they said was aimed at isolating the country for its support of terrorist groups and Iran.
It put the U.S. in a difficult position because it is allied with nations on both sides of the dispute. Moreover, Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command, which includes a state-of-the-art air base the Pentagon depends on to target Islamic State.
Tillerson’s efforts have been hindered by mixed messages coming out of the administration. The secretary of state initially called on Saudi Arabia to ease what he called “the blockade” on June 9, only to have Trump, at a White House news conference hours later, say the move had been the right one.
“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump said in a speech at the White House. “We ask Qatar, and other nations in the region to do more and do it faster.”
The Trump administration’s position was clouded further this week when the Defense Department announced that Qatar would sign a $12 billion deal to buy as many as 36 F-15 jets from the U.S.