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Rex Tillerson Faces Mideast Test In Navigating Saudi Arabia, Qatar Tensions


A rift between U.S. allies and the Persian Gulf presents Rex Tillerson with one of his first big challenges as secretary of state. And it should be right in his wheel house. Tillerson was the head of Exxon Mobil, and he's got deep contacts in the region. But as America's top diplomat, he now has to contend with clashing interests not only in the Gulf, but also in Washington. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Saudi Arabia has given Qatar until this weekend to meet what it says are non-negotiable demands. Secretary Tillerson is trying to cool tempers.


REX TILLERSON: We hope all the parties will continue to talk with one another in good faith.

KELEMEN: Saudi Arabia is blockading Qatar, and their foreign ministers were both here in Washington this week trading accusations about that. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir says Qatar has to stop the flow of money to extremists if it wants relations to resume.


ADEL AL-JUBEIR: And once they do, then we can - things will be worked out. But if they don't, they will remain isolated.

KELEMEN: Qatar's foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, says the Saudi demands are unrealistic, like calling on Qatar to shut down its Al Jazeera news network.


MOHAMMED BIN ABDULRAHMAN AL-THANI: Qatar is willing to engage. Qatar is willing to look at whatever area of concern they have, whatever claims they are having. But it should be based on main principles, which is nothing to infringe our sovereignty or our independence.

KELEMEN: President Trump has publicly sided with the Saudis on this, complicating matters for Tillerson. The Qatari foreign minister told a group of journalists and analysts that he's working solely through Tillerson's State Department to resolve this. And one analyst at the briefing, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, questioned whether the department is up to the task.

DANIELLE PLETKA: I'm very troubled by the fact that the State Department is in the lead on this given that they haven't got any appointees at all working on the Middle East.

KELEMEN: That's in part because Tillerson and the White House are at odds over political appointments. And Pletka says the U.S. is no closer to resolving this rift among allies.

PLETKA: At the end of the day, this really does require some sustained leadership from the White House. We fly missions out of Qatar. We need to be sure that that is going to be a relationship that exists into the future, or we need to start thinking about our options.

KELEMEN: Qatar hosts a huge U.S. military base. Exxon Mobil, where Tillerson was CEO, is also a big player there. And theoretically, that should help Tillerson, says Steve Coll, who wrote a book about Exxon called "Private Empire."

STEVE COLL: In the Gulf, the skills that an oil executive develops are more relevant to resolving a crisis like this one because it's a top-down crisis. I mean, this is really diplomacy in the throne room built on relationships and closed-door negotiations.

KELEMEN: But as Coll points out, Tillerson's relationships are mostly with one side.

COLL: He has relationships especially in Qatar, but Saudi Arabia's really leading the charge here. And that kingdom is in a transition. It has a young crowned prince who's just been elevated.

KELEMEN: And the crown prince, by most accounts, has been developing close ties to President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. So who runs U.S. foreign policy - Kushner or Tillerson? That question was put to the secretary of state at a recent House hearing.


TILLERSON: It is the Department of State and myself. And that has been reconfirmed by the President to me on multiple occasions.

KELEMEN: Until now, Tillerson has been in the corporate world, and little of that seems to translate to Washington, says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

JON ALTERMAN: There are some things that transfer on the people-to-people side. The part that doesn't really transfer is getting your own government behind you. I mean, that's not really a challenge that I think he's had to deal with.

KELEMEN: This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman put on hold on U.S. military sales to the Saudis and others until they resolve their dispute with Qatar. This could give Tillerson leverage over both the Saudis and the White House. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.