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Is Qatar’s spat with its neighbours about the US and Iran?

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In front of an office of Qatar Airways in Riyadh, 5 June 2017. Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser

Qatar is facing potential food and supply shortages as Saudi Arabia led a pack of regional neighbours in severing economic and diplomatic ties on Monday. Though they have cited Qatar’s positions on the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran as reasons, the Gulf States are also facing external pressure and internal fighting that may have informed the closures.


The spat between Qatar and its neighbours in and around the Gulf is not unprecedented, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors to Doha over its alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood for several months in 2014.

But with Riyadh closing its land border and major carriers Qatar Airways and Emirates among those who have suspended or reduced part of their Doha services, the latest dispute’s scale goes beyond what has come before.

“The vast majority of Qatar’s imports – construction, food – come across this land border, so the impact there is going to be really quite severe,” says David Roberts, lecturer at King’s College London and author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State.

“The states that are leading this are trying to escalate things to such a degree whereby Qatar can’t really compete, and it has to come to the table very quickly with ways that it can improve the situation.”

Two recent developments appear to have contributed to the coordinated breaking of ties, which by end of day Monday involved Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and the Maldives.

The first involves emails hacked from Qatar’s state news agency in recent weeks that appear to show the country’s emir speaking favourably of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

The second is last month’s visit to Riyadh by United States President Donald Trump, who called on the region to unite against Iran, an area that sets Doha apart from its neighbours.

“The real difference between Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain on one hand, and Qatar on the other, is their view of on the situation of the region, especially when it comes to Iran,” Arab world specialist Alain Gresh told RFI’s French services. “For Qatar, it’s necessary to maintain dialogue with Iran and to avoid portraying Iran as the source of all troubles in the region.”

Regional finger-pointing

Iranian officials blamed the US for the current rift, and at the very least, Trump’s visit cannot be completely removed from the equation.

“There’s no evidence of an agreement between regional leaders and Donald Trump, but his visit emboldened Saudi Arabia in particular, and the UAE has been quite effectively creating a reputation for itself as one of America’s most important Arab allies,” says David Roberts. “So we can’t draw a causal link, but the correlation at least is very strong.”

The US’s presence in and relations with Qatar raises some doubts as to whether the rift is really about Trump’s position on Iran.

“The largest US airbase aside from Diego Garcia is the one that Americans have in Qatar, the al-Udeid Air Base, and it is primarily from this airbase that the fight against Isis is being launched,” says Paris-based lawyer and Middle East analyst Ardavan Amir Aslani.

“So it is not American related, and there is no severing of ties between the Americans and the Qataris. This matter is primarily intra-Arab.”

For Aslani, the rift is primarily a consequence of pressure Saudi Arabia faces over the terrorist attacks that keep happening in Europe.

“There are two schools providing the ideology of all of these Sunni terror movements globally: one is the Salafi Wahhabi version principally financed by Saudi nationals if not the Saudi state, and the other is the Qatari version, which is a more organised hierarchical structure of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Aslani, who sees the rift as a consequence of pressure Western states are putting on Riyadh over terrorist attacks in Europe.

“The Saudis are feeling the international pressure whereby the European countries are saying, ‘you’d better bring down the tone on ideology and stop financing all these movements, as it is becoming unbearable in Western capitals.’ Saudi Arabia, and their cronies in the region, were striving to find an alternative scapegoat, and they identified the less-liked member of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], which is Qatar.”