This week saw regional tensions with Qatar escalate when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and the government of East Libya announced the severing of diplomatic relations with the small Gulf nation on Monday.
Described as a new chapter in the ongoing hostilities, many believe this has brought dynamics with the powerful Gulf player to the point of no return. The move marks a new peak in diplomatic pressures on Qatar, initiated by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by Egypt.
“The decision, although it may appear surprising, was an extension of an agreement reached by a number of Arab countries participating in the Riyadh Summit last month, which was attended by US President Donald Trump,” according to a diplomat in Cairo, speaking on condition on anonymity.
“Let me speak frankly,” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said during the summit, asking “Where are the safe havens where fighters are trained and their wounded are treated? How are they provided with media coverage by outlets that have accepted to become bulwarks for terrorism?” He pointedly asserted that some countries in the region are incriminated in supporting and financing terrorist organizations, or refusing to provide information on foreign fighters.
Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz responded to Sisi’s declaration: “We support your vision. We in Saudi Arabia will support you with all our strength and generosity.”
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry officially announced the severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar in a statement issued on Monday, giving their ambassador to Cairo 48 hours to leave the country. “The Egyptian government has decided to cut diplomatic relations with the State of Qatar in response to the Qatari government’s insistence on pursuing an anti-Egyptian agenda,” the statement reads. It adds that all attempts to dissuade the Qatari government from supporting what it calls terrorist organizations, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, have failed.
It accuses Qatar of “harboring Muslim Brotherhood leaders who have received prison sentences for terrorist operations targeting Egypt’s security, promoting the ideology of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and supporting terrorist operations in Sinai.”
The list of accusations leveled against Qatar includes interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries in the region, which Egypt has labeled threatening to “Arab national security, and strengthening the seeds of discord and division within Arab societies.”
The Qatari Foreign Ministry responded to the accusations in a statement rejecting the decision to end diplomatic relations, writing that this “will not affect the normal course of life for citizens and residents of the country,” adding that the government will pursue all possible avenues to end any attempt to influence Qatar’s society and economy.
“No one has the right to accuse us of terrorism just because they classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group.”
Qatar is, however, threatened as its only land border, shared with Saudi Arabia, has been closed and Saudi and the UAE have restricted airspace for Qatar airways and Qatar-bound flights.
The most recent tensions emerged in the media after the Qatari News Agency published statements attributed to Prince Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani at the end of May. He is quoted as saying: “No one has the right to accuse us of terrorism just because they classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, or reject the role played by Hamas and Hezbollah in resistance. The real danger is the behavior of some governments that cause terrorism by adopting a radical version of Islam that does not represent its tolerant reality, and does not challenge it except through criminalizing every justified activity.”
Another diplomat, based in Riyadh and speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said, “Doha sought to refute these accusations, mediating officially through Kuwait and unofficially through Oman, but it did not succeed.”
“There is a conviction that Doha will not submit to all the demands, primarily from Saudi Arabia, to cut relations with Tehran, expel certain political figures, and freeze the financial assets of others. All these demands were clearly and specifically conveyed to Qatar through Kuwait,” the diplomat added.
UAE-based columnist Sultan al-Qassemi suggested in an article published in Newsweek that demands may also include the shutting down of Qatar-based or funded media outlets, mainly Al Jazeera and Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed.
In May, access to a number of websites was blocked by several Egyptian internet service providers. Most of them are Qatari-based or funded news outlets — Al Jazeera and Huffington Post Arabic were both on the list of blocked websites.
Qassemi tells Mada Masr that Qatar may concede to a change in the management of Al Jazeera and appoint a more politically moderate editorial figure, rather than shutting down the entire network. He also believes they may agree to a crackdown on Islamic charities which the US State Department has labeled vehicles for financing terrorism.
He adds that in terms of Egypt’s demands, Qatar may agree to “hand over a few people or politely ask some Muslim Brotherhood members to leave.”
“Even if they do all this, it is not guaranteed that relations will be restored,” Qassemi says, arguing that the situation may even escalate.
“The next step will be within the framework of the United Nations Security Council, due to Doha’s international obligations in the war on terrorism.”
News emerged on Wednesday that Turkey’s parliament had approved a bill to deploy troops in its base in Qatar as a means to support the Gulf country.
Both of the diplomats Mada Masr spoke to say that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s visit to Cairo on Sunday was to inform Egypt of the failure of mediation efforts with Qatar and the subsequent decision to cut diplomatic relations, requesting that Egypt follow suit.
A source in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, claims that “The next step will be within the framework of the United Nations Security Council, due to Doha’s international obligations in the war on terrorism. Particularly in regards to the situation in Libya, where whole territories have become launching platforms for terrorist operations that undermine regional security, all thanks to Qatari policy.”
According to a source within the Arab League, the Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit is holding successive consultations with Cairo, the details of which remain unknown, mainly to consider what more can be done against the Qatari policy.
He disregards the possibility of suspending Qatar’s Arab League membership or imposing sanctions on it, which would require “a unanimous decision by the League.” He also doesn’t expect punitive measures from the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In addition to Qatar’s perceived hostility toward several Arab countries, it has also been involved in a specific, ongoing feud with Saudi Arabia, which is currently experiencing a silent power struggle over succession to the throne.
“Information was made available to both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that Doha endeavors to support Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef against the growing influence of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz who is son of the current king, defense minister and deputy crown prince,” the diplomatic source based in Riyadh told Mada Masr.
The Saudi King has been grooming Abdul Aziz for the throne in a way that some suggest has caused conflict with Bin Nayef.
A UAE-based political commentator, speaking on condition of anonymity says that Saudi’s trouble with Qatar is also related to its ties to the Houthi rebels, who have stood against the Saudi-backed government in Yemen. The relationship with the rebels has been described as ties are described as taking the shape of media support and possible political mediation.
Translated by Lina Attalah