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Qatar Given More Time To Meet Demands Of Arab Neighbors

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today was supposed to be a deadline for the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. Several of its Arab neighbors issued an ultimatum to the country, giving a list of demands. Saudi Arabia and others accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. Now they have given Qatar two extra days to stop.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As this deadline loomed, Qatar's ambassador to the United States came by our studios. Sheikh Mehsal bin Hamad Al Thani said his country is happy to talk, but he contends the Saudis, along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, made impossible demands.

MEHSAL BIN HAMAD AL THANI: We can see that this list has been made not to be achievable.

INSKEEP: The Arab move against Qatar, let's recall, came abruptly a few weeks ago. Its neighbors cut off relations, closed their airspace to Qatar Airways, even expelled Qatari nationals. U.S. allies were suddenly in conflict. Afterward came the list of demands that Qatar must downgrade relations with Iran and shut its satellite TV channel, Al Jazeera. Qatar said those demands would violate its sovereignty, letting other nations dictate its business.

There's a demand that Qatar stop funding extremist groups outside of its borders. Perhaps we should begin by asking whether you agree that Qatar does that.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Of course it does not. Steve, the issue of counter-terrorism is highly important in Qatar. We take it seriously. We work with our allies here in the United States to counter this matter and, specifically, counter terrorism and finance of terrorism.

INSKEEP: Does Qatar support the Muslim Brotherhood, a specific complaint here?

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Qatar does not support the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar works with governments and not with parties. The relation with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood was in the context when they were in the governments of their countries.

INSKEEP: You mean like when there was a Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt?

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Not only in Egypt. Qatar worked with many governments in the Arab world that had components of the Islamic Brotherhood.

INSKEEP: Qatar was accused at one point of supporting the Nusra Front, an extremist group in Syria. I know that your government has denied that. But is it correct that Qatar has provided support to some of the various rebel groups in Syria, some of whom are very - not very nice people?

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Our support in Syria is very clear. It is for the Syrian moderate opposition. This support is coordination with our allies in the United States and in Europe. If you allow me - I think in order to understand what we are facing today, it is important to go back in history a little bit and discuss what the four countries themselves - these four countries who are blockading by my country - have done in 1996. I think what we are facing today is history repeating itself. There was an attempt of a coup by these four countries.

INSKEEP: ...By the neighbors of Qatar, including Saudi Arabia.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Yes, including Saudi Arabia. What we have done in Qatar since 1996, in terms of reform, had no doubt represented a pressure on the Saudis. We have embarked on social reforms. So these measures have made some pressure on the Saudis. They did not like that women started to drive in Qatar. They didn't like that we have invited five American universities to be in Doha.

INSKEEP: Which is true - there are American universities that now have campuses in Qatar.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Of course. And they did not like that - that we have allowed it a base with 11,000 U.S. military...

INSKEEP: A U.S. air base, primarily, a command center.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: So we cannot take the history out of context when we look at this.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that you think the Saudis and others are targeting you because you have made Qatar a little more open, and they're threatened by that?

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Because we are independent, because we are trying to progress - we are trying to be open to the world. So it seems that these countries don't want such an agenda, and they would like a confrontation, which is evident from the way they are handling this...

INSKEEP: But...

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: ...This matter.

INSKEEP: What you're saying has been true for years. Why would they go against you now? You must have a theory.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: My theory is based on the history. We went to Riyadh, met with the Saudis three times.

INSKEEP: In the month of May.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: In the month of May.

INSKEEP: These were, like, normal diplomatic meetings.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Normal, high-level diplomatic meetings - and nothing was - no concerns were raised with us. And we went there with a spirit to work collectively to combat terrorism. And the next day, we see that they turn against us.

INSKEEP: Somewhere in there President Trump visited Saudi Arabia.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: We had a very good meeting in Saudi Arabia with President Trump. And the president was very clear in his message that the Islamic world has to unite. And we were part of that.

INSKEEP: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made it clear that he wants to resolve this issue, which involves U.S. allies on both sides. However, President Trump has made a number of remarks on Twitter that made it sound as if he was claiming credit, almost, for the Saudi position or for, in some way, inspiring the Saudi position. Do you think President Trump is behind this in some fashion?

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: I don't believe so. I don't believe so. I believe that these countries have misled the United States and spoke about how they saw terrorism and not how the international community sees terrorism. They see terrorism in anyone who is a political opponent for them.

INSKEEP: You think the Saudis fooled the president is what you're saying?

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that there are some misleading information given to the United States.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, thank you very much.

BIN HAMAD AL THANI: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: Sheikh Mashal bin Hamad Al Thani is the ambassador of Qatar to the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.