Arab powers sever Qatar ties, citing support for militants

By Reuters/Noah Browning   June 6, 2017 | 12:38 am GMT+7
Arab powers sever Qatar ties, citing support for militants
The Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in a photo taken on November 11, 2015. Photo by Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo.

Trump's hawkish tone on Tehran and on terrorism in his visit last month to Riyadh is seen as laying the groundwork for the diplomatic crisis.

The Arab world's strongest powers cut ties with Qatar on Monday over alleged support for Islamists and Iran, re-opening a festering wound just two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump's demand for Muslim states to fight terrorism.

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.

Qatar denounced the moves as based on lies about it supporting militants. It has often been accused of being a funding source for Islamists, as has Saudi Arabia.

Iran, long at odds with Saudi Arabia and a behind-the-scenes target of the move, blamed Trump's visit last month to Riyadh.

"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 reference to Trump's joining in a traditional dance with the Saudi king at the meeting.

Closing all transport ties with Qatar, the three Gulf states gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt banned Qatari planes from landing and forbade them from crossing their airspace.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia stopped exports of white sugar to Qatar, a potential hit to consumers during the holy month of Ramadan, when demand is high. Some residents in Qatar have begun stockpiling food and supplies, Qatari media reported.

Along with Egypt, however, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are potentially vulnerable, being highly dependent on Qatar for liquified natural gas.

The diplomatic broadside threatens the international prestige of Qatar, home to a large U.S. military base and set to host the 2022 World Cup.

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. It was unclear how it would play with the military base.

"You have a shift in the balance of power in the Gulf now because of the new presidency: Trump is strongly opposed to political Islam and Iran," said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global risk and resilience at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.

"He is totally aligned with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, who also want no compromise with either Iran or the political Islam promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood."

Brotherhood

Qatar has for years presented itself as a mediator and power broker for the region's many disputes, but Egypt and the Gulf Arab states resent Qatar's support for Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as a political foe.

Muslim Brotherhood groups allied to Doha are now mostly on the backfoot in the region, especially after a 2013 military takeover in Egypt ousted the elected Islamist president.

The former army chief and now president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, along with the new government's allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, blacklist the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

In cutting relations, Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of backing militant groups 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," 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 was also expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting a war in Yemen.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, said on its state news agency that Qatar's policy "threatens Arab national security and sows the seeds of strife and division within Arab societies according to a deliberate plan aimed at the unity and interests of the Arab nation."

Qatar denied it was interfering in the affairs of others.

"The campaign of incitement is based on lies that had reached the level of complete fabrications," the Qatari foreign ministry said in a statement.

Call for dialogue

Iran, Turkey and the United States all called for the sides to resolve their differences.

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.

The economic fallout was already in focus as Abu Dhabi's state-owned Etihad Airways, Dubai's Emirates Airline and budget carriers Flydubai and Air Arabia 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 7.3 percent with some of the market's top blue chips hardest hit and some Egyptian banks said they were halting dealing with Qatari banks.

The measures are more severe than during a previous eight-month rift in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, again alleging Qatari support for militant groups. At that time, travel links were maintained and Qataris were not expelled.

Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the U.S-based Baker Institute, said if Qatar's land borders and air space were closed for any length of time "it would wreak havoc on the timeline and delivery" of the World Cup.

Soccer authorities said they were in contact with Qatar.

"It seems that the Saudis and Emiratis feel emboldened by the alignment of their regional interests - toward Iran and Islamism - with the Trump administration," Ulrichsen said.