New Delhi: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed their ties with Qatar on Monday and imposing a land and sea blockade. The Saudi-led coalition has accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, but the move risks opening up the worst rift in years among some of the most powerful states in the Arab world.
Gulf Arab states and Egypt have already long resented Qatar’s support for Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood which they regard as a dangerous political enemy.
The coordinated move, with Yemen and Libya’s eastern-based government joining in later, as well as Maldives, created a dramatic rift among the Arab nations, many of which are in OPEC.
Announcing the closure of transport ties with Qatar, the three Gulf states gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave. Qatar was also expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
Immediate trigger – Qatar News Agency article
The decision to cut ties with Doha comes just weeks after comments published by the website of Qatar’s state-run QNA news agency—allegedly from Qatar’s ruling Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani—featured negative remarks about Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s Gulf Arab neighbors responded with anger, blocking Qatari media. The Doha-based Al Jazeera was among the media outlets which were banned.
Qatar, however, claims that hackers took over the media outlet’s website and published the comments, which it says were fake.
Saudi-Qatar blame game
The recent media rift isn’t the only escalation of tensions between Qatar and its neighbors. Saudi Arabia has regularly accused Qatar of backing militant groups—some backed by regional arch-rival Iran—and broadcasting their ideology, an apparent reference to Qatar’s influential state-owned satellite channel al Jazeera.
“(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly," Saudi state news agency SPA said.
It accused Qatar of supporting what it described as Iranian-backed militants in its restive and largely Shi’ite Muslim-populated Eastern region of Qatif and in Bahrain.
Qatar has been accused of using its media and political clout to support long-repressed Islamists during the 2011 pro-democracy “Arab Spring" uprisings in several Arab countries.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Riyadh has seen Teheran as an ideological as well as political adversary. Shiite-led Iran is being viewed with suspicion across the Arab world-led by Sunni monarchies. They have often accused Iran of using disgruntled Shia minorities for overthrowing Sunni regimes. The US has openly backed the Gulf Arab states against Iran.
In the current context, criticism by Saudi and UAE media outlets escalated after Sheikh Tamim phoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the weekend in apparent defiance of Saudi criticism.
Donald Trump effect?
Iran has blamed the US for pulling the strings after the recent Trump visit to Saudi Arabia. Trump and other US officials participated in a traditional sword dance during the trip in which he called on Muslim countries to stand united against Islamist extremists and singled out Iran as a key source of funding and support for militant groups.
“What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance," Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, tweeted in a reference to Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Sydney on Monday that the spat would not affect the fight against Islamist militants and that Washington has encouraged its Gulf allies to resolve their differences.
The twist in the tale is that US also hosts a large military base in Qatar and a split between Doha and its closest allies can have repercussions around the Middle East, where Gulf states have used their financial and political power to influence events in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
India will not be impacted by some Gulf countries cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar, foreign affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said on Monday.
“There is no challenge arising out of this for us. This is an internal matter of GCC (Gulf Coordination Council). Our only concern is about Indians there. We are trying to find out if any Indians are stuck there," she told reporters.
Also read | Qatar vs Gulf countries: A timeline of the crisis
■ The economic fallout loomed immediately, as Abu Dhabi’s state-owned Ethihad Airways, Dubai’s Emirates Airline and budget carrier Flydubai said they would suspend all flights to and from Doha from Tuesday morning until further notice.
■ Qatar Airways said on its official website it had suspended all flights to Saudi Arabia.
■ Qatar’s stock market index sank 7.5% with some of the market’s top blue chips hardest hit.
■ Credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service is concerned that the rift between Qatar and other regional states could have an impact on Qatar’s credit outlook, if trade and capital flows are disrupted.
■ The diplomatic broadside threatens the international prestige of Qatar, which hosts a large US military base and is set to host the 2022 World Cup. It has for years presented itself as a mediator and power broker for the region’s many disputes.
■ Oil prices rose after the moves against Qatar, which is the biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and a major seller of condensate - a low-density liquid fuel and refining product derived from natural gas.