A group of Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE severed diplomatic ties with U.S. ally Qatar on Monday, accusing the oil-rich country of sponsoring violent extremism and causing regional instability. The abrupt decision has thrown the region into its greatest diplomatic crisis in decades and deepens a rift that has been growing for years between most of the Gulf states and Qatar.
The group of Arab countries, which also includes Egypt, Yemen, and the Maldives, ordered their diplomats and citizens to leave Qatar as soon as possible while also cutting all air traffic, virtually isolating Qatar — a country that shares its only border with Saudi Arabia and largely depends on food imports — by land, air, and sea.
The decision came as a shock to international leaders and regional allies, but tensions in the region have been rising for months if not years. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have regularly expressed disdain for Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s critical news coverage, and for the country’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. While the U.S. does not consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt do.
The severing of diplomatic ties can be traced back in part to accusations that Qatar has shown increasing tolerance of Shia-majority Iran, Saudi Arabia’s principal rival. In late May, four Arab countries blocked Qatari media outlets, including Al Jazeera, after a story from Qatar’s state news agency quoted top Qatari official Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani condemning anti-Iran attitudes and calling Iran a force of stability in the region.
Qatar has maintained that the statements are fake and were the result of a cyberattack. Nevertheless, they immediately sent ripples through the Sunni-majority region and further stoked tensions.
And Qatar has done little to assuage Saudi fears. The country’s emir recently phoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his election win. Rouhani reportedly called for “more cooperation and consultations,” according to the Iranian state news agency IRNA.
Then came President Donald Trump’s first official visit to Riyadh, last month, which Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff blamed Monday for accelerating the regional spat. During his visit, Trump repeatedly singled out Iran, calling the country a source of instability that “fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.”
“What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance,” Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff tweeted, referring to the traditional Saudi ceremony Trump participated in during his visit to the Saudi capital.
But the flare-up over Bin Hamad al Thani’s alleged comments are part of much larger regional tensions between traditional Gulf allies, says Gerald Feierstein, the director of the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
“This is a continuation of a longstanding disagreement between Qatar and, primarily, the UAE and Saudi Arabia over Qatar’s support for groups that the others consider as threats to regional stability and security,” Feierstein said. “The forefront of these groups is the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam. The dispute has erupted in years past and has been papered over after the intervention of the other GCC states but not resolved.”
The domino effect
Bahrain was the first country to withdraw on Monday, followed by Saudi Arabia and others. The Kingdom’s state-run news agency posted a statement saying Qatar “embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaida, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly.”
Qatar flatly denied the allegations, calling them “unjustified” with “no basis in fact,” according to a statement posted by Qatar’s foreign ministry, which also accused the Arab countries of lying, saying that Qatar “has been subjected to a campaign of lies that have reached the point of complete fabrication.”
The developments put the U.S. in a bind. The U.S. military has its largest military base in the Middle East in Qatar, and Qatar is also part of the United States’ coalition to combat ISIS.
Feierstein said the severing of diplomatic ties appears “more dramatic than previous episodes and may be harder to repair.”