November 6, 2018 / 11:51 AM / 8 days ago

UPDATE 2-Qatar's ruler hopes Gulf crisis will end for sake of region

(Adds comments and context)

By Eric Knecht

DOHA, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Qatar's ruler voiced hope on Tuesday the country's bitter dispute with Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies would pass, saying it had harmed regional security by weakening a Gulf Arab bloc.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut transport and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism and their foe Iran. Doha denies the charges and says the boycott aims to undermine its sovereignty.

"History teaches us that crises pass, but if they are handled badly then this may leave traces which last for a long time," Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said in a speech to the country's consultative Shoura council.

"It is very regrettable that the continuation of the Gulf crisis exposed the failure of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ... which has weakened its ability to face challenges and threats and marginalised its role in the region," he said, urging the bloc to adopt dispute resolution mechanisms.

The United States, an ally of the six-nation Sunni Muslim GCC, sees the rift as a threat to efforts to contain Shi'ite Iran and has pushed for a united Gulf front.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have repeatedly said the dispute is not a top priority and assured Washington it will not affect defence cooperation.

Riyadh recently appeared to soften its tone on Qatar as the kingdom faces its worst political crisis in decades, over the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul, which has strained Saudi ties with the West.

TINY BUT WEALTHY

The emir said Qatar's economy had emerged stronger from the sanctions and that the state continued to support vital projects, including preparations to host the World Cup in 2022 and to develop oil and gas industries to maintain its position as the world's largest liquefied natural gas exporter.

Doha has moved to attract investors and new trade partners as it builds an economy less reliant on its neighbours, easing restrictions on foreign ownership of stocks and property.

Qatar grew its exports by 18 percent last year and slashed spending by 20 percent under a conservative fiscal policy, while preserving the value of its currency, the emir said, forecasting the budgetary surplus would increase in coming years.

He told the Shoura Council that Doha would push ahead with economic diversification plans to ensure food and water security but continue to build on its already powerful energy sector.

"Qatar's objectives in diversifying the economy and reducing its dependence on oil and gas does not ever mean neglecting the oil and gas sector as a fundamental source of wealth," he said. (Additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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