A long-simmering international crisis in the Middle East boiled over on Monday as some of the most powerful nations in the Arab world severed ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and taking sides with Shiite Iran against Sunni Muslim governments.
“Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain cut relations with Qatar in a coordinated move. Yemen, Libya’s eastern-based government and the Maldives joined in later,” Reuters reported on Monday. Mauritius also joined the boycott later on Monday morning.
This is no minor diplomatic spat. Qatari visitors and even permanent residents were given just two weeks to leave Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE, while their own citizens were banned from traveling to Qatar. The land borders and airspace of those nations was closed to Qatari planes. Various Gulf airlines, such as Dubai-based Emirates Air, announced they were suspending all flights to Doha in Qatar. The move effectively seals Qatar’s entire land border.
Egypt also announced it would suspend air travel with Qatar, effective Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia expelled Qatar from its coalition in Yemen. Yemen’s internationally-recognized government, which has been fighting an insurgency by Iran-backed rebels and al-Qaeda, announced its support for the decision to expel Qatar from the coalition, accusing it of “dealing with the insurgent militias and supporting extremist groups in Yemen, which contradicts the aims agreed upon by states supporting Yemen’s legitimate government.”
CNN notes that as of Monday, the only members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that still have ties to Qatar are Kuwait and Oman. It should also be noted that Libya currently has three governments and, so far, only one of them has declared it will cut ties with Qatar.
The crisis had swift ramifications for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news network. The Saudis announced on Monday that Al-Jazeera’s press license has been revoked and its offices in the Kingdom closed. The Saudis accused Al-Jazeera of promoting “terrorist organizations’ plots” and supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The other Gulf states said they were isolating Qatar to protect their national security from “the dangers of terrorism and extremism.” Saudi Arabia cited the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and dissident Saudi groups supported by Iran in its denunciation of Qatar. Bahrain likewise cited Qatari support for “Iranian groups” bent on “sabotage and spreading chaos” in their island nation. Egypt accused Qatar of taking an “antagonistic approach” toward relations with it.
Oil prices became volatile as news of the Qatar dispute spread, with investors concerned about the potential collapse of an OPEC agreement to cap oil production. Unsurprisingly, Qatar’s stock market was hit particularly hard. Social media reports circulated on Monday showing citizens of the suddenly isolated emirate stockpiling food.
In a statement, Qatar’s foreign ministry said the boycott was “based on baseless fabricated claims.”
“Qatar has been the target of a systematic incitement campaign that promoted outright lies, which indicates that there was a prior intent to harm the state,” the Foreign Ministry said, insisting that Qatar remains “dedicated to its obligation in the war on terrorism and extremism.”
The statement made reference to what the Foreign Ministry described as a “fabricated media crisis” from two weeks ago, in which the government claimed the Qatar News Agency was hacked and “false statements” attributed to Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani were posted. Praise for the terrorist group Hamas and Iran were among those controversial remarks. It would seem fair to say Egypt and the other Gulf states are not buying the “hacking” story.
“The goal is clear, enforcing guardianship over our country which is a blatant violation of our sovereignty, which is completely unacceptable. The statement released by the three GCC nations makes it clear that the relentless fabricated media campaign against Qatar was pre-planned,” the statement from the Qatari Foreign Ministry concluded.
Iran chipped into the crisis by blaming it on President Donald Trump, specifically the arms deal he signed with Saudi Arabia and remarks he made while visiting the Kingdom recently.
“What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance,” asserted Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff to recently re-elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Trump attended such a traditional dance ceremony while visiting Riyadh.
Aboutalebi also criticized the Saudis and other nations seeking to isolate Qatar, saying, “the era of cutting diplomatic ties and closing borders is over.”
The Washington Post echoed Iran’s criticism on Monday, arguing that Trump is indeed responsible for the rift between the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Qatar by moving U.S. policy away from Obama’s Iran-friendly approach and aligning more firmly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“The policy inexperience of many within Trump’s inner circle has presented an opportunity for both the Saudis and the Emiratis to shape the administration’s thinking on critical regional issues such as Iran and Islamism, both of which were evident during the Riyadh visit,” the Post alleges, also darkly citing the “strong bonds” between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and influential Saudis and Emiratis.
On the other hand, many critics of Qatar’s outsize influence on American politics can be found. Qatar is immensely rich and has not been shy about using its money to build influence in both the Middle East and the Western world.
For the record, there is also little question about Qatar’s significant support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas; the only real question is how much that support has tapered off in recent years. The Jerusalem Post, for one, sees the Qatar crisis as a potential boon to Israel, which may now be able to develop closer relations based on mutual interest with Egypt and the other Gulf states after feeling “isolated” during President Obama’s courtship of Iran.
Similarly, the Hindustan Times offers applause from India that Qatar’s strategy of “influence by nuisance” might be coming to an end, although concerns are voiced about the inconvenience to the approximately 650,000 Indians working in Qatar, along with fears that Qatar’s isolation could be a harbinger of the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran heating up.
The Hindustan Times analysis agrees that President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia could have played a role in bringing matters to a head because he implicitly gave his “blessing” to Saudi Arabia’s increasingly determined “anti-Iranian coalition.”
Reuters also asserts, “the hawkish tone Trump brought in his visit to over 50 Muslim leaders in Riyadh on Tehran and on terrorism is seen as laying the groundwork for the diplomatic crisis.”
The Qatar crisis is a serious matter for the United States for a number of reasons, including the presence of America’s largest military base in the Middle East at Al Udeid Air Base, 20 miles southwest of Doha. About 11,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed at the base. Qatar, which only has a small air force of its own, invested a billion dollars in the construction of the base, which has been used for anti-ISIS airstrikes and air operations in Afghanistan.
U.S. Central Command said on Monday there are “no plans to change our posture in Qatar” due to the crisis and will continue to fly missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
“We encourage all our partners in the region to reduce tensions and work towards common solutions that enable regional security,” said Major Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway in a statement.
An angry editorial at the UAE National blames the crisis entirely on Qatar’s behavior, accusing the Qataris of folly for thinking the Muslim Brotherhood would not be quick to sweep their ruling family away, too, if it had the chance.
“The leadership certainly chooses its allies unwisely, because the same false friendship is evident in the close ties between Doha and Tehran,” The National says of Qatar. “Iran’s actions in the Middle East have cost Doha’s Arab neighbors blood and treasure. There are families in the UAE and Saudi Arabia who mourn their loved ones specifically because of Tehran’s actions. The regime across the Arabian Gulf is no friend to Doha.”
The editorial ends with an implied threat to boot Qatar from the GCC, which would seem like the next step if the crisis continues to escalate, despite appeals for calm discourse from the United States, Russia, and Turkey.
“I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of disbelief in the countries for some time, and they’ve bubbled up to take action in order to have those differences addressed,” said U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences.”