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Qatar says Saudi blocks official from Gulf coronavirus summit

[DOHA] Qatar accused Saudi Arabia on Thursday of barring its health minister from a summit of Gulf countries gathering to discuss the regional response to the new coronavirus epidemic.

Qatar and Saudi are at loggerheads over Riyadh's nearly three-year-long embargo of its small but rich Gulf neighbour, which it accuses of backing radical Islamists and Iran - allegations Doha denies.

"Qatar expresses its concern that the Saudi authorities did not grant (Health Minister) Hanan al-Kuwari permission to enter Riyadh and attend a meeting on coronavirus preventive measures organised by the Gulf Cooperation Council... until the meeting had actually started," Qatar's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"Saudi Arabia has repeatedly claimed that the GCC, especially the technical committees, have not been affected by the crisis. Yet we are surprised to see that (Riyadh) is politicising a humanitarian sector."

Saudi Arabia, along with its allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, cut all diplomatic, trade and transport ties with Qatar in June 2017.

The rift has seen the two sides trade barbs on everything from access to the Islamic holy city of Mecca to alleged Twitter hacking.

It has also seen families divided, while Qatari businesses face increased costs - including projects linked to the 2022 World Cup - and complications in regional travel.

Despite hosting major hubs for transport between the West and Asia, the region most affected by the coronavirus epidemic that has claimed over 2,100 lives, the Gulf has been largely unaffected.

Nine cases have been detected in the United Arab Emirates, two suspected cases in Qatar were later found not to be the virus, while Saudi Arabia has not reported any confirmed instances.

Hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough were raised when Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the UAE, agreed to participate in the Arabian Gulf Cup football tournament in Qatar in December, after initially boycotted it.

Saudi King Salman then invited Qatar's ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to a GCC summit in Riyadh in December, but Qatar ultimately rebuffed Riyadh and instead sent then-prime minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani.

AFP