Rich Qatar has long faced criticism from neighbors for supporting extremists.
BEIRUT — Four Arab countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar on Monday, accusing the Persian Gulf nation of supporting terror and triggering the region’s worst diplomatic crisis in years.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain announced plans to suspend all land, air and sea traffic with Qatar and eject its diplomats.
Qatar was also expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Yemen’s internationally backed government also severed relations with Qatar, as did the government in eastern Libya and the Maldives.
The U.S. has an air base in Qatar that houses central command, which directs the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State group, and 10,000 troops.
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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson downplayed the seriousness of the dispute Monday and said the U.S. was willing to help resolve it.
Saudi officials announced on state television that the decision to cut diplomatic ties was due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, the Islamic State and groups supported by Iran in the kingdom’s eastern provinces.
Qatar’s foreign-affairs ministry called the measures unjustified, based on false claims and assumptions, blaming “a hidden plan to undermine the state of Qatar.”
The announcement triggered a closing of borders, shutdown of flights, airspace and sea ports. Qatar Airways, a prominent international carrier, was among the airlines forced to suspend some flights.
Qatar, a relatively small country jutting into the Persian Gulf, has a border with Saudi Arabia and is vulnerable to its larger neighbor. It imports almost all of its food, about 40 percent of it directly from Saudi Arabia. Several residents, reached on the internet chat, said that people were stocking up on food and cash.
Neighboring Bahrain blamed the blockade on Qatar’s “media incitement, support for armed terrorist activities and funding linked to Iranian groups to carry out sabotage and spreading chaos in Bahrain.”
Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world, has used that wealth in recent years to play an outsize role in regional politics.
Tensions had been building for years, beginning with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and through the broadcasts of the Pan-Arab news network Al-Jazeera, which Qatar funds.
Its actions are a study in contradictions. Qatar has good relations with Iran, but hosts the U.S. air base. It is helping to fight the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, but it also supports Tehran-backed allies of the Assad government in Syria, including the Hezbollah movement. Yet Qatar also aids Sunni extremist groups fighting the Syrian government.
Qatar has long faced criticism from Gulf neighbors for supporting Muslim extremists, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist political group outlawed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. Three years ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar over its backing of then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood member.
Qatari officials have since denied accusations that they fund the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and in Syria, including al-Qaida’s branch, once known as the Nusra Front. But analyst Saeed Wahabi said Qatar has been unwilling to enforce restrictions on terror financing and partner with the U.S. on counter terrorism the way Saudi Arabia has.
Qatar’s longtime links to Iran also worry Saudi leaders. In late May, Qatar’s state-run news agency published comments from its emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Thani, expressing support for Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Israel, and suggesting President Donald Trump would not stay in power.
Qatari officials blamed the comments on hackers, but Wahabi said they highlighted a longstanding relationship with Iran, the Shiite power that is vying for regional influence with Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Muslim power.
Qatar is predominantly Sunni, but has a small Shiite minority.
One analyst, Gerd Nonneman, a professor of international relations and Gulf studies at Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, Qatar, said FBI and British intelligence officials had “no doubt” that the article on the emir was the result of a hack.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said that the new moves reflected a “bullishness” prompted by the Trump administration’s stances — on the confrontation with Iran and on a willingness to look the other way on human rights violations.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are getting “no U.S. pushback” on human rights or on the Yemen intervention, he said, while “Egypt also feels off the hook with Trump, and is using the opportunity to repair ties with the Saudis, reinforce with the Emiratis and be more assertive in Libya.”
Turkish officials have offered to mediate, which is promising given their good relations with both Qatar and other Gulf countries.
But it’s the middle of the Muslim Ramadan, then Eid. Many don’t expect a resolution until at least the beginning of July.
Until then, Qataris who often cross the border to shop in Saudi Arabia will be blocked, and several airlines have suspended service: Qatar Airways suspended all flights to Saudi Arabia; Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier, suspended flights to Qatar “until further notice”; and Emirates, which is Dubai-based, will suspend Qatar flights starting Tuesday.
The blockade comes just two weeks after Trump visited the Middle East and urged members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to join with him in an alliance against Iran.
“The Saudis and the Emiratis probably felt they had license to act in this way without the U.S. intervening,” said Michael Knights, a Boston-based analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, adding that the message sent by U.S. officials at the Riyadh summit was clear: “Trump has subcontracted the fight against political Islam to them and they need to take the lead.”
“This is them using that mandate to settle some old scores. There’s always been this tension with Qatar, this rivalry between the UAE and Qatar, the Saudis and Qatar. What we’re seeing now is a very brutal exercise in humiliation, to break Qatar’s independent spirit,” Knights said, “score settling within the Gulf states.”
In another indication of how the Trump visit may have emboldened Gulf monarchies, Bahrain has cracked down on opposition from its Shiite majority over the last two weeks.
Iranian officials condemned the blockade as the latest instance of the U.S. expanding its influence in the region.
“What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance,” tweeted Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, referring to news photos of Trump’s traditional dance with the Saudi king during last month’s Riyadh summit.