ISTANBUL — A decision by Washington’s primary Arab allies to sever relations with the tiny but influential nation of Qatar on Monday plunged the Middle East into a new crisis that could further complicate the United States’ efforts to fight violent extremist groups and confront an assertive Iran.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, followed by Bahrain, the UN-backed government of war-torn Yemen, and Khalifa Haftar, the military strongman overseeing eastern Libya, declared a suspension of all diplomatic and economic relations with the gas-rich Persian Gulf monarchy of Qatar over its ties with Iran and its alleged support for Islamist and armed extremist groups across the region.
Tensions between Qatar and the other Gulf monarchies have been building for years. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain have opposed Qatar’s relatively cordial ties with Iran, with which it shares the world’s biggest gas field; its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories; its backing of Islamist militias in Libya; and its hosting of popular Arabic-language news media, including Al Jazeera and the website and newspaper Al-Araby al-Jadeed.
The severing of relations follows closely after a major summit in Riyadh, where Donald Trump renewed ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE that were strained during the Obama presidency, and comes days after the website of Qatar’s state-run news agency published comments attributed to the nation’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, criticizing the Saudi-led drive to alienate Iran. The Gulf states responded ferociously, but Qatar insists the comments were fake and its website was hacked. The US is said to have sent the FBI to help Qatar investigate the alleged breach.
The boldness and severity of the diplomatic maneuvers caught Middle East observers by surprise, leading to speculation that Trump’s wholehearted embrace of the Arab autocracies may have prompted the strong measures. “It seemed quite sudden and it escalated much more quickly than people expected,” said Allison Wood, a UAE-based analyst at Control Risks Group, a business consultancy. “The Saudis and Emiratis are feeling somewhat emboldened after the meetings that they had with Trump. They felt the rekindling of the US bilateral relationship gave them some license to pressure the Qataris to come into line with their policies.”
The escalation against Qatar had all the trappings of a foreign policy gambit that could badly backfire. Numerous Saudi and UAE attempts to rally the Muslim world against Iran over the years have faltered. Researchers and diplomats say the attempt to bludgeon Qatar into aligning its policies with the rest of the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council could just as easily push it closer to the strategic orbit of Iran, Turkey, or Russia. The move could also alienate Kuwait and Oman, two other oil-rich members of the GCC, whose Iran policies don’t sync with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
"This is a massive information operation with dozens of stories coming out with one point: questioning the legitimacy of the rulers of Qatar," said Theodore Karasik, a senior analyst at Gulf State Analytics. "They think they can strangle Qatar and get it to capitulate. This could backfire on them completely. The number one problem is that it will force Qatar to seek new security partnerships with Turkey. Doha can also turn to Iran."
The severing of ties, preceding the weekly start of capital markets trading in the West, appeared designed to deliver maximum damage to the economy and international reputation of Qatar, a nation of 2.4 million that occupies a peninsula jutting out from the Saudi mainland. Qatar’s main stock index fell 8% in early Monday trading.
“I think something very specific likely triggered the break in diplomatic relations,” said one Syrian opposition figure close to the Saudi authorities. “Qatar’s refusal to [confront Iran] was one important catalyst. And accusations of supporting Houthis based on possible intel is another red line. Tamim’s foreign policy will now have severe domestic consequences amongst his citizenry.”
Qatar also hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, the al-Udeid airfield, where the US Combined Air and Space Operations Center oversees US military flights over 20 countries, including Iraq and Syria. The diplomatic spat will likely further complicate delicate efforts to fight ISIS and al-Qaeda across the region and to form a united front to challenge Iran; the latest moves by Saudis could actually push Doha closer to Tehran and Turkey, which also supports the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots.
“It does complicate things for the US,” said Wood. “Even though the US backs the Saudi and Emirati positions, it is not in the US interest to see the GCC fall apart, further destabilizing a region that is already rife with conflict.”
At a press appearance in Australia, the US’s top diplomat downplayed the spat among its allies.
“What we’re witnessing is a growing list of some irritants in the region that had been there for some time, and obviously they have now bubbled up to a level where countries decided they needed to take action in an effort to have those differences addressed,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Sydney on Monday. “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences. I do not expect that this will have any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified fight against terrorism in the region or globally.”
Qatar’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it regrets the move by its fellow GCC partners, but voiced defiance, alleging Arab states were attempting to control the country. “The fabrication of reasons for taking action against a sister country in the GCC is clear evidence that there is no legitimate justification for these measures,” said the statement. “The purpose is clear: the imposition of guardianship over the state. This in itself is a violation of its sovereignty as a state which is categorically rejected.
Both Qatar and the other Gulf states also support the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and some Syrians are worried the rift would diminish support for rebels fighting the Damascus government backed by Russia and Iran. “It is in the interest of all the enemies of the revolution and the bloody Syrian regime,” said Col. Haitham Ofisi, a leader of Division 51, one of the rebel groups in northern Syria. “We, the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, call on all parties to resort to reason and restraint.”
The news caused panic in Doha, where reports emerged of residents flocking to supermarkets to stock up on food and supplies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both barred Qatari passenger planes from flying across their airspace and ships and vehicles from using their ports of entry, including the crucial Saudi crossing that is Qatar’s sole land link to the rest of the world. Saudi citizens will also be prohibited from traveling to or living in Qatar, or even transiting through its airport. In its statement, Qatar’s ministry of foreign affairs said the government “will take all necessary measures...to thwart attempts to influence and harm the Qatari society and economy.”
But all signs indicated the crisis could further escalate. A report by the official Saudi news agency cited an unnamed official saying Riyadh would begin “immediate legal procedures for talks with fraternal and friendly countries and international companies” to block transport to Qatar. The UAE ordered all Qatari diplomats to leave within 48 hours and all citizens within two weeks, harsh measures for nations not formally at war. Even Iran, the Gulf’s arch-nemesis, maintains a robust diplomatic presence in the UAE, and its citizens travel regularly to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“Saudi took this decision because they claimed Qatar is embracing different terrorist and sectarian groups that are destabilizing security in the region,” the report said, citing unspecified alleged Qatari “support” for Iranian-backed Shia groups in the oil-rich eastern Saudi province of Qatif and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels now fighting government forces backed by the Saudis and UAE in Yemen.
“Saudi tried to urge authorities in Doha to abide by their commitments but they failed,” the report said.
One former Western diplomat who has served in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar suggested that the UAE was the driving force for the move. “The Emirates' main beef with Qatar had been its perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood,” said the former diplomat. “But this has increasingly cut little ice with the Saudis.”
The Western diplomat and another Gulf security expert separately said the UAE masterminded the escalation ahead of a June 11–15 conference, organized by the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, that is to focus on further isolating Qatar. Details about the conference and the growing relationship between the UAE’s ambassador to Washington and the think tank were exposed in a recent leak of emails.
In a statement, the UAE said it was taking “decisive measures” over Qatar’s failure to abide by a 2014 deal to end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the century-old Islamist organization that both the Gulf states and Egypt’s military strongman Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi have sought to wipe out. The statement cited Qatar’s “funding and hosting of terror groups, primarily Islamic Brotherhood, and its sustained endeavours to promote the ideologies of [ISIS] and Al Qaeda across its direct and indirect media.”
The UAE also accused Doha of violating the May 21 agreement forged with other Muslim world leaders and US President Donald Trump, which called for a united front against Iran. “The UAE measures are taken as well based on Qatari authorities’ hosting of terrorist elements and meddling in the affairs of other countries as well as their support of terror groups — policies which are likely to push the region into a stage of unpredictable consequences.”
Munzer al-Awad contributed reporting from Istanbul.
The population of Qatar is 2.3 million. An earlier version of this article misstated the number.