Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, which they accuse of supporting terrorism, in the Gulf Arab region’s most serious diplomatic crisis in years.
The countries said they planned to break off all land; air and sea traffic with Qatar, and eject its diplomats from their territories. Saudi Arabia also said Qatari troops would be pulled from the war in Yemen.
Qatar’s foreign affairs ministry said there was “no legitimate justification” for the countries’ decision, though it vowed its citizens would not be affected by the “violation of its sovereignty”.
It was not immediately clear how Monday’s announcement would affect Qatar Airways, one of the region’s major long-haul carriers that routinely flies through Saudi airspace. The airline did not immediately respond to a request by the Associated Press for comment. Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier, said it would suspend flights to Qatar “until further notice”.
Saudi Arabia said it took the decision to cut diplomatic ties due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region”, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, Islamic State and groups supported by Iran in the kingdom’s restive eastern province of Qatif. Egypt’s foreign ministry accused Qatar of taking an “antagonist approach” toward Egypt and said “all attempts to stop it from supporting terrorist groups failed”.
The tiny island nation of Bahrain blamed Qatar’s “media incitement, support for armed terrorist activities and funding linked to Iranian groups to carry out sabotage and spreading chaos in Bahrain” for its decision.
The decision came after Qatar alleged in late May 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. Its Gulf Arab neighbors responded with anger, blocking Qatari-based media, including the Doha-based satellite news network Al-Jazeera.
Qatar is home to the sprawling al-Udeid airbase, which houses the US military’s central command and 10,000 American troops. It was not clear if the decision would affect US military operations. Central command officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Qatar has long faced criticism from its Arab neighbors over its support of Islamists. The chief worry among them is the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist political group outlawed by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE as it challenges the nations’ hereditary rule.
Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia fell out with Qatar over its backing of then-Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar over the rift. Eight months later, they returned their ambassadors as Qatar forced some Brotherhood members to leave the country and quieted others. However, the 2014 crisis did not see a land and sea blockade as threatened now.
In the time since, Qatar repeatedly and strongly denied it funds extremist groups. However, it remains a key financial patron of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and has been the home of exiled Hamas official Khaled Mashaal since 2012.
Western officials also have accused Qatar of allowing or even encouraging funding of Sunni extremists like al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.
The row comes only two weeks after Donald Trump visited the Middle East to seal major defence contracts with Saudi Arabia worth $110bn, set up an anti-extremist institute in Riyadh and urges the Gulf States to build an alliance against Iran.
Although it is unlikely Saudi Arabia would have instigated this action against Qatar without first informing the US, it is possible that Trump did not give the green light to such drastic steps.
The Saudis are in part countering the allegation of funding extremism, frequently made in Washington and in the past by Trump himself, by pointing the finger at Qatar for funding terrorism.
Speaking in Australia, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, played down the seriousness of the diplomatic dispute, and said it would not affect counter-terrorism efforts.
“I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of irritants in the region that have been there for some time, and they’ve bubbled up so that countries have taken action in order to have those differences addressed,” he said.
Tillerson said regional efforts to counter the threat of terrorism would be undiminished.
“I do not expect that this will have any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified – the united – fight against terrorism in the region or globally. All of those parties you mentioned have been quite unified in the fight against terrorism and the fight against Daesh, Isis, and have expressed that most recently in the summit in Riyadh.”