By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) – Qatar filed a wide-ranging legal complaint at the World Trade Organization on Monday to challenge a trade boycott by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, the director of Qatar’s WTO office Ali Alwaleed al-Thani told Reuters.
By formally “requesting consultations” with the three countries, the first step in a trade dispute, Qatar triggered a 60 day deadline for them to settle the complaint or face litigation at the WTO and potential retaliatory trade sanctions.
“We’ve given sufficient time to hear the legal explanations on how these measures are in compliance with their commitments, to no satisfactory result,” al-Thani said.
“We have always called for dialogue, for negotiations, and this is part of our strategy to talk to the members concerned and to gain more information on these measures, the legality of these measures, and to find a solution to resolve the dispute.”
The boycotting states cut ties with Qatar – a major global gas supplier and host to the biggest U.S. military base in the Middle East – on June 5, accusing it of financing militant groups in Syria, and allying with Iran, their regional foe, allegations Doha denies.
The boycotting countries have previously told the WTO that they would cite national security to justify their actions against Qatar, using a controversial and almost unprecedented exemption allowed under the WTO rules.
They said on Sunday they were ready for talks to tackle the dispute, the worst rift between Gulf Arab states in years, if Doha showed willingness to deal with their demands.
The text of Qatar’s WTO complaint cites “coercive attempts at economic isolation” and spells out how they are impeding Qatar’s rights in the trade in goods, trade in services and intellectual property.
The complaints against Saudi Arabia and the UAE run to eight pages each, while the document on Bahrain is six pages.
There was no immediate reaction from the three to Qatar’s complaint, which is likely to be circulated at the WTO later this week.
The disputed trade restrictions include bans on trade through Qatar’s ports and travel by Qatari citizens, blockages of Qatari digital services and websites, closure of maritime borders and prohibition of flights operated by Qatari aircraft.
The complaint does not put a value on the trade boycott, and al-Thani declined to estimate how much Qatar could seek in sanctions if the litigation ever reached that stage, which can take 2-5 years or longer in the WTO system.
“We remain hopeful that the consultations could bear fruit in resolving this,” he said.
The WTO suit does not include Egypt, the fourth country involved in the boycott. Although it has also cut travel and diplomatic ties with Qatar, Egypt did not expel Qatari citizens or ask Egyptians to leave Qatar.
Al-Thani declined to explain why Egypt was not included.
“Obviously all options are available. But we have not raised a consultation request with Egypt yet,” he said.
In its WTO case, Qatar would also draw attention to the impact the boycott was having on other WTO members, he added.
Many trade diplomats say that using national security as a defence risks weakening the WTO by removing a taboo that could enable countries to escape international trade obligations.
Al-Thani said governments had wide discretion to invoke the national security defence but it had to be subject to oversight.
“If it is self-regulating, that is a danger to the entire multilateral trading system itself. And we believe the WTO will take that into consideration.”
Qatar also raised the boycott at a meeting of the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on Monday, al-Thani said.
In comments to Qatar-based Al Jazeera television later on Monday, Qatar’s transport and information minister said the boycotting countries had discriminated against Doha in violation of an international agreement guaranteeing overflights.
“These countries have used this right arbitrarily and imposed it on aircraft registered only in the State of Qatar,” Jassim bin Saif al-Sulaiti said.
Qatar in June asked Montreal-based ICAO to resolve the conflict, using a dispute resolution mechanism in the Chicago Convention, a 1944 treaty that created the agency and set basic rules for international aviation.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain said on Sunday they would allow Qatari planes to use air corridors in emergencies.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Dubai and Ali Abdelaty in Cairo,; Editing by Alison Williams and Alister Doyle)