- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2017

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and two other Arab powers — apparently emboldened by President Trump’s recent visit to the region — on Monday moved to diplomatically isolate the tiny, energy-rich Persian Gulf nation of Qatar over what they say are its ties to Iran and support for jihadi groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

While the push may be a sign that the new American president’s sharp posture against extremists and Iranian provocations is paying off, analysts say it also comes with tremendous risk because it lays bare the intensity of feuding among key U.S. allies in the region, just as Mr. Trump seeks deeper cohesion among them.

The development could prove particularly sticky for Washington, which has a delicate alliance with Qatar, on one hand discreetly chastising Qatari officials over their seemingly duplicitous policies while on the other maintaining a critical U.S. military base in the nation.

The Trump administration responded cautiously to the decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen to sever ties with Qatar and cut land, sea and air routes to the nation, claiming it supports terrorists on both sides of the region’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim religious divide.

Qatar is a majority Sunni Arab nation like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE but has long kept up ties to Shiite Iran, upon which Doha’s energy wealth is dependent. It has also preserved relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that was ousted by current Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi in a 2013 military coup.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson appeared eager to downplay the outbreak of friction between the Sunni powers, barely more than a week after Mr. Trump visited Saudi Arabia and vowed to improve ties with dozens of Arab and Muslim states to combat regional terrorist groups and contain Iran.

“We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters on a visit to Australia. He said the developments won’t negatively affect the U.S.-led alliance battling the Salafi Islamic State group and suggested that the developments could bring much-needed dialogue between the Sunni powers.

“I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of disbelief in the countries for some time,” Mr. Tillerson said. “They’ve bubbled up to take action in order to have those differences addressed.”

Mr. Trump held a cordial meeting with Qatar’s ruling emir during his Saudi visit. “We’ve been friends now for a long time, haven’t we?” the president said at the meeting. “Our relationship is extremely good.”

Deep-rooted divide

The Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation alliance of Gulf Arab states of which Qatar is a member, previously fell out with Doha over its backing of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi — who was ousted by Mr. el-Sissi.

The Saudis, the UAE and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors from Qatar in 2014 and returned them only when Doha forced some Brotherhood members to leave the country, quieted others and signed a Gulf Cooperation Council reconciliation agreement to ease the standoff.

But the tensions did not abate.

While Qatar denies funding extremists, analysts say it remains a key patron of Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Western officials also accuse Qatar of encouraging charities to fund of Sunni extremist groups such as al Qaeda in Syria.

Equally problematic has been Doha’s relations with Iran, seen by the Saudis and the Trump administration as the main source of instability across the region. Qatar shares a massive offshore gas field with the Islamic republic and is known for making political overtures to Tehran — repeatedly angering the Saudis.

Monday’s events mark “an escalation of tensions that were there in 2014, when Qatar was accused by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others of supporting extremists,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Qatar is now accused of nonconformance with the obligations of a GCC reconciliation agreement that it signed in 2014 to end that diplomatic standoff,” said Mr. Ibish. “All of the statements coming from the countries taking action against Qatar now cite that nonconformance.”

While he said Qatar’s financing of the global satellite news network Al Jazeera and the network’s critical coverage of the other powers in the region is also a factor, Mr. Ibish highlighted GCC frustration over Doha’s “amicable relations” with Iran.

“While Qatar has always tried to publicly endorse an anti-Iranian campaign, the Qataris are privately trying to do their best to maintain these positive relations with Iran because Qatar shares this massive gas field with Iran and draws its revenues from the gas field,” he said. “In that sense, Qatar is not declining to take part in a long-term campaign against Iran, but is actually actively undermining that campaign.”

Ahmed Al Hamli, president of TRENDS Research and Advisory, a think tank based in the UAE, suggested that the greater frustration has to do with Qatar’s unwillingness to join others in the Gulf in their condemnation of radicals. “Qatar has allowed the Taliban, Hamas, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood to live and operate in Doha,” Mr. Al Hamli said in an interview.

“There are reports of sanctioned al Qaeda operatives under the U.N. regime living in Qatar with full government support,” he said. “Qatar has attempted to claim that it can act as some form of mediator between terrorists and others, but the total of its actions only points to support for designated terrorist individuals and groups.”

Pushing back

Saudi Arabia appeared to spearhead Monday’s clash, closing its land border with Qatar, through which the tiny Gulf nation of roughly 2.3 million imports most of its food, and sparking a run on supermarkets.

Saudi Arabia was joined by Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, all of which began withdrawing their diplomatic staff from Qatar as regional airlines announced that they would suspend service to Doha — leaving the international travel hub in chaos and sending the Qatar stock exchange tumbling more than 7 percent.

Saudi Arabia said it acted because of Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region,” including groups supported by Iran in the kingdom’s restive Eastern Province. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry accused Qatar of taking an “antagonist approach” toward Cairo and said “all attempts to stop it from supporting terrorist groups failed.”

The Saudis and the others all ordered their citizens out of Qatar and gave Qataris abroad 14 days to return home to their peninsular nation, whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. The nations also said they would eject Qatar’s diplomats and vowed to cut air and sea traffic. Riyadh also said Qatari troops would be pulled from the war in Yemen.

Qatar criticized the moves as a “violation of its sovereignty.” It long has denied supporting militant groups and described the crisis as being fueled by “absolute fabrications” stemming from a recent hack of the Qatar News Agency. Doha has alleged that hackers took over the site of its state-run news agency and published what it called fake comments from its ruling emir about Iran and Israel.

The Qatari Foreign Affairs Ministry said Monday that there was “no legitimate justification” for actions against Doha. “The Qatari government will take all necessary measures to ensure this and to thwart attempts to influence and harm the Qatari society and economy,” the ministry said.

It was not immediately clear how the developments may impact Qatar’s plans to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, said Monday that it was in regular contact with Qatar and declined to elaborate.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif conferred with Qatari counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani and said Tehran regretted the rift among the Arab states.

“Neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed,” Mr. Zarif wrote on his Twitter page. “Coercion is never the solution,” and “pressures and threats” will not work.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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