The relationship between Qatar and several other Arab countries has been fraying for a while, but now it’s just been ripped apart.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen,and the UAE are cutting diplomatic relations with Qatar, withdrawing embassy staff, blocking roads into the country and suspending flights to and from the small energy rich state. Given that many Qatar Airways flights go through neighbouring countries, and 90% of its food stuffs come from abroad, with about 40% via Saudi Arabia, this is a huge problem for Qatar. Saudi Arabia, which is also pulling Qatari troops from the coalition fighting the war in Yemen has joined the others in expelling Qataris. They have 14 days to leave.
All five accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism. A Saudi government statement said ties were broken because of Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region” including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, and al-Qaida.
The dispute should be seen in the wider context of a broader trend in the region. Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to have made a strategic decision that the Islamist jihadi mindset must be crushed, or it risks overthrowing the existing order, whereas Qatar has positioned itself in support of extremist groups such as the Nusra Front in Syria.
Egypt said all attempts to get Qatar to stop supporting terror had failed. Bahrain talked about ‘media incitement’ which is seen as criticism of the Qatar based Al Jazeera network. The UAE also mentioned media influence and said measures had to be taken because of Qatar’s “continued support, funding and hosting of terror groups, primarily Islamic Brotherhood, and its sustained endeavours to promote the ideologies of Daesh and Al Qaeda…”
Qatar strongly rejects all the accusations made against it saying “the measures are unjustified and are based on claims and allegations that have no basis in fact.” Qatar is the richest country in the world per capita with vast oil and gas reserves It has used that wealth to become a serious player in Middle East diplomacy.
However, since the uprisings of 2011 relations between several Arab countries and Qatar have become increasingly strained. The main accusation has been its support of the Muslim Brotherhood which has its roots in Egypt. It is the chief financial sponsor of the Gaza based Hamas organization, and has hosted the Hamas leader in exile Khalid Mashaal. Another problem is the cordial relationship Qatar has with Iran with which it shares a huge off-shore gas field. Qatar is a member of the 6 nation Gulf Coperation Council which is made up of Sunni dominated countries whereas Iran is overwhelmingly Shia and has long been viewed with suspicion by much of the Arab world.
Last week Qatar’s Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, called Iran’s newly re-elected President Hasan Rouhani to congratulate him. This was seen as a slap in the face by the Saudi’s who are the regional rivals to Iran for dominance in the Middle East. Tensions had already risen during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Comments attributed to the Emir appeared on state owned Qatari news agency website criticising Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the USA over plans to contain Iranian power. Qatar said the website had been hacked.
Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is home to 10,000 American service personnel at the al-Udeid Air Base, and has strong trading relations with many Western countries. They will be watching this huge diplomatic row with nervousness.
The effect on ordinary people in Qatar has been immediate with the border closures leading to a rush on food and other supplies in supermarkets.
Iran has now offered to send supplies. In the short term, if Qatar thinks it can find a way out nof this crisis, that might help in keeping the shops open. However, unless Qatar wants to double down and make the drastic decision to ally itself with its Persian neighbour, then at some point it is going to have make gestures allowing a face saving comrpomise with Saudi Arabia and the others.