Arab powers sever ties with Qatar over militant support

Traditional boat is seen in the water in Doha. Photo: Reuters
Several Arab nations have severed ties with Qatar citing the countries support of militants and Islamists. Photo: Reuters

The Arab world's biggest powers cut ties with Qatar on Monday (local time) over alleged support for Islamists and Iran, reopening a festering wound two weeks after US President Donald Trump's demand for Muslim states to fight terrorism.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in a coordinated move. Yemen, Libya's eastern-based government and the Maldives joined later. Transport links shut down, triggering supply shortages.

Qatar, a small peninsular nation of 2.5 million people, denounced the action as predicated 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 and called for the sides to overcome their differences.

"What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance," tweeted Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, referring to Trump's joining in a traditional dance with the Saudi king at the meeting.

Closing all transport links 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 air space.

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 began stockpiling food and supplies, an expatriate said.

"People have stormed into the supermarket hoarding food, especially imported ones ... It's chaos - I've never seen anything like this before," said Eva Tobaji, an expatriate resident in Doha, told Reuters after returning from shopping.

About 80% of Qatar's food requirements are sourced via bigger Gulf Arab neighbours. Trade sources pointed to the likelihood of shortages growing in Qatar until the crisis eased.

Along with Egypt, however, the UAE and Saudi Arabia could be vulnerable to retaliation, being highly dependent on Qatar for liquefied natural gas.

Qatar Airways plane is seen in Doha. Photo: Reuters
Closing all transport links with Qatar, 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 air space. Photo: Reuters

Asked about the Arab rift, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump was committed to pursuing "conversations with all of the people involved in that process and all of those countries. We want to continue to de-escalate that and at this point we're continuing to work with each of those partners."

A US State Department official said: "All of our partnerships in the Gulf are incredibly important and we count on the parties to find a way to resolve their differences sooner rather than later."

The diplomatic bust-up threatens the international prestige of Qatar, which has a large US military base and is set to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.

Soccer's governing body FIFA said on Monday it was in "regular contact" with Qatar's 2022 organising committee but did not comment directly on the diplomatic situation.

The hawkish tone Trump brought in his visit to over 50 Muslim leaders in Riyadh on Tehran and on terrorism is seen as having laid the groundwork for the diplomatic crisis.

"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 Centre 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."

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD

Qatar's backing of Islamists dates to a decision by the current ruling emir's father to end a tradition of automatic deference to Saudi Arabia, the dominant Gulf Arab power, and forge the widest possible array of allies.

Doha subsequently cultivated not only Islamists like America's foes Iran, Hamas and the Taliban in pursuit of leverage, but also Washington itself, hosting the largest US air base in the Middle East.

The Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the final session of the South American-Arab Countries summit, in Riyadh. Photo: Reuters
The Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the final session of the South American-Arab Countries summit, in Riyadh. Photo: Reuters

The US military said on Monday it had seen no impact to its Gulf-area operations, intended primarily as a strategic bulwark against Iran, from the flare-up of the Arab dispute. It added that it was grateful for Qatar's longstanding support of a US presence and commitment to regional security.

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 enemy.

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.

A split between Doha and its closest allies could 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 hitting home as Abu Dhabi's state-owned Ethihad Airways, Dubai's Emirates Airline and budget carriers Flydubai and Air Arabia said they would suspend all flights to and from Doha indefinitely from Tuesday morning.

Qatar Airways said on its official website it had suspended all flights to Saudi Arabia. Many Gulf airports, including in Qatar, are major hubs for international connecting flights.

Qatar's stock market index sank 7.3% with some of the market's top blue chips hardest hit and some Egyptian banks said they were suspending 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 factions. At that time, travel links were maintained and Qataris were not expelled. 

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