Qatar prime minister to travel to Saudi Arabia amid boycott

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Qatar's prime minister will travel to Saudi Arabia for two summits in the kingdom, authorities announced Wednesday, a visit that would mark the highest-level contact between the neighboring nations since a kingdom-led boycott of Doha began in 2017.

The decision by Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani comes after a letter from Saudi King Salman inviting the Qataris to the summits on recent attacks around the Persian Gulf that the U.S. attributes to Iran, and a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

It remains unclear what such a trip could mean for the ongoing boycott, part of a political dispute between Qatar and four Arab nations — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The four nations say the crisis stems from Qatar's support for extremist groups in the region, charges denied by Doha. They have also pointed to Qatar's close relationship with Iran, with which it shares a massive offshore gas field that provides the peninsular nation its wealth. Qatar restored full diplomatic ties to Iran amid the dispute.

However, the trip comes after efforts by the U.S. and Western powers to mend the split largely have gone nowhere. Heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran also have seen American officials increasingly call for Gulf Arab nations to band together.

Qatar-funded satellite news channel Al-Jazeera first reported the news Wednesday night citing what it described as a "high-level source." Qatari Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Lolwah al-Khater later confirmed on Twitter that Sheikh Abdullah would attend the summit.

There was no immediate reaction from Saudi Arabia., a flight-tracking website, showed a Qatari government aircraft had flown into the Red Sea port city of Jiddah earlier this week.

Sheikh Nasser became prime minister in 2013 after Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, took power following his father's abdication.

King Salman had sent an invitation for Sheikh Tamim to attend the summit. Al-Jazeera, citing "sources familiar with the situation," said Sheikh Tamim was unlikely to attend.

That's not surprising given recent history. Kuwait's ruling emir has suggested the countries involved were on the precipice of military conflict in June 2017 when launching the boycott. In late 2017, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stunned his country by resigning via television during a visit to Saudi Arabia, prompting speculation the kingdom held him against his will. Hariri later left the kingdom and renounced his resignation.

Since the boycott began, countries involved have stopped Qatar Airways flights from using their airspace, closed off the small country's sole land border with Saudi Arabia and blocked its ships from using their ports.

The U.S., which has some 10,000 troops stationed at Qatar's sprawling al-Udeid Air Base, has sought without success to end the crisis.

Qatar, a nation that sticks out like a thumb into the Persian Gulf, has one of the world's highest per-capita income due to its natural gas reserves, the third-largest on the planet after Russia and Iran. Its people follow an ultraconservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism, though unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia, women can drive and foreigners can drink alcohol.

Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.


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