DUBAI/DOHA - The United Arab Emirates tightened the squeeze on fellow Gulf state Qatar on Wednesday, threatening anyone publishing expressions of sympathy towards Doha with up to 15 years in prison and barring entry to Qataris.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Reuters there would be more curbs if necessary and said Qatar needed to make ironclad commitments to change what critics say is a policy on funding Islamist militants.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on Monday over long-standing allegations that Doha is courting Iran, which they deem the region's biggest external threat, and supporting Islamist groups, seen as the biggest internal threat.
Qatar vehemently denies the allegations. It drew some apparent support on Wednesday with Turkey saying it would fast-track troop deployments to a base in Qatar and provide crucial food and water supplies to the emirate.
Iran, itself reeling from an attack by Islamic State militants that killed at least 12 people on Wednesday, has called for dialogue to solve the regional rupture, and its foreign minister was visiting the region to that end.
But efforts to defuse the worst crisis among Gulf Arabs for two decades showed no immediate progress.
U.S. President Donald Trump took sides in the rift on Tuesday, praising the actions against Qatar, but later spoke by phone with Saudi King Salman and stressed the need for Gulf unity.
His defence secretary, James Mattis, also spoke to his Qatari counterpart to express commitment to the Gulf region's security. Qatar hosts 8,000 U.S. military personnel at al Udeid, the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East and a launchpad for U.S.-led strikes on Islamic State jihadists.
Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, was heading to Dubai in the UAE, state news agency KUNA said, part of the emir's effort to mediate an end to the dispute. He met the Saudi king on Tuesday. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan also pledged to do everything possible to help defuse the crisis.
As part of the diplomatic rupture, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed all air, land and sea transport links with Qatar. Qataris were loading up on supplies in supermarkets, fearing shortages.
The sudden isolation has spurred Qatar to hold talks with Turkey, Iran and others to secure food and water supplies, said a Qatari official. He said there were enough grain supplies for four weeks and Qatar also had large strategic food reserves.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi port authorities in the UAE have eased curbs on non-Qatari oil tankers going to and from Qatar, according to industry sources and shipping circulars seen by Reuters on Wednesday.
UAE-based newspaper Gulf News and pan-Arab channel Al-Arabiya reported the crackdown on expressions of sympathy with Qatar.
"Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of bias towards Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates, whether it be through the means of social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form," Gulf News quoted UAE Attorney-General Hamad Saif al-Shamsi as saying.
On top of a possible jail term, offenders could also be hit with a fine of at least 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), the newspaper said, citing a statement to Arabic-language media.
Slogans against and in support of Qatar have dominated Twitter in Arabic. Newspapers and television channels in the region have also been engaged in a war of words.
UAE airlines Etihad and Emirates said all travellers holding Qatari passports were currently prohibited from travelling to or transiting through the emirates.
They announced details of the restrictions after Australian carrier and Emirates partner Qantas Airways said it would not fly Qataris to Dubai because of the bans.
Foreigners residing in Qatar in possession of a Qatari residence visa would also not be eligible for visas on arrival in the UAE, an Etihad spokesman said in an email.
Gargash, the UAE minister, told Reuters in an interview it would be very complex to disentangle the "very diverse" business ties between Qatar and its neighbours but suggested this might be necessary.
"You cannot rule out further measures. We hope that cooler heads will prevail, that wiser heads will prevail and we will not get to that."
Qatar's stock index was down 1 percent after diving 8.7 percent over the last two days. The Qatari riyal fell to an 11-year low against the U.S. dollar in the spot market.
"Tensions are still high and mediation efforts by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council state Kuwait have yet to lead to a concrete solution, so investors will likely remain on edge," said one Dubai-based trader.
Oil prices dipped on renewed concerns about the efficacy of OPEC-led production cuts due to the Qatar tensions, and also over growing U.S. output.
Qatar has said it will not retaliate for the curbs.
"We are willing to sit and talk," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told CNN late on Tuesday. He said his country was "protecting the world from potential terrorists".
A Qatari official, however, said the rift was pushing Doha in the direction of leaving the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council, founded in 1981, "with deep regret".
Bans on Doha's fleet using regional ports and anchorages are threatening to halt some of its exports and disrupt those of liquefied natural gas (LNG).