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Why Did Several Arab Countries Suddenly Cut Ties With Qatar?

Why Did Several Arab Countries Suddenly Cut Ties With Qatar?

Five Arab countries — six if you count one of Libya’s rival governments — suddenly cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing the small Gulf state of backing militant groups including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, a move that could potentially complicate the U.S.-led coalition against terrorist groups.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain first cut ties on Monday morning. Egypt, Yemen, Libya’s interim government, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), encouraged by Saudi authorities to do the same, quickly followed suit, preparing to expel diplomats, close off borders, and institute a travel ban on flights to and from the country. Kuwait and Oman are the only Gulf Cooperation Council members retaining ties.

The tiff is ostensibly over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood — which the Egyptian government considers a terrorist organization — and Al Jazeera, a Qatari media network often critical of Saudi and Egyptian authorities. But tensions have been simmering between Qatar and its neighbors for years, primarily over Qatar’s open conduit with Iran, Riyadh’s geopolitical archrival.

Those tensions boiled over in recent weeks. Gulf allies blocked Al Jazeera after Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani allegedly criticized Saudi Arabia on state media outlets while calling for improved ties with Iran. Nonsense, Qatar said: Those comments were fake. According to Doha, Qatar News Agency, which disseminated Thani’s remarks, had been hacked.

In a statement, the Qatari foreign ministry expressed “deep regret” over the move by its neighbors to sever ties and to close its borders. The statement described the moves as  “unjustified” and “based on baseless and unfounded allegations.”

The embassies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and the UAE did not immediately respond to request for comment.

There seemed to be a sixth country cutting ties with Qatar, after reports emerged that the Libyan government had also done so. But the Libyan Embassy in Washington clarified that the interim government in eastern Libya cut ties with Qatar; the internationally-recognized U.N.-brokered Government of National Accord has not.

The move comes as a Saudi-led coalition, including Qatar, is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in a deadly conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia announced it would remove Qatari troops from the coalition fighting the war as accusations mount that Qatar is quietly backing Iran’s regional agenda.

Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of financing extremists and “supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups in the governorate of Qatif of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Bahrain,” in a statement Monday.

Saudi Arabia itself has come under fire for financing and exporting extremism. In fact, after Saturday’s terror attack in London, calls came from the United Kingdom’s Labour and Liberal Democrat parties for the British government to allow for a “sensitive” government report to be published. That report is thought to focus on the role Saudis play in funding terror groups and propaganda.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Australia, said the diplomatic row wouldn’t impact the ongoing war against the Islamic State; Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Libya, and Egypt are all members of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“I do not expect that this will have any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified — the unified — fight against terrorism in the region or globally,” he told reporters in Sydney after a summit with the Australian foreign and defense ministers.

“We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences,” he added.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said he did not believe the move would have implications for the fight against the Islamic State. Trump’s efforts to ramp up the fight against terror have focused on bringing Arab countries, and especially the Gulf states, closer together.

Tensions in the Gulf could be a headache for the Pentagon. Qatar and its neighbors are key to the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East. Qatar hosts the Al Udeid air base, from which the U.S. launches airstrikes against the Islamic State. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the wider Middle East and parts of the Indian Ocean.

And while the diplomatic snafu on Monday seemed to come suddenly, there have been hints of aggravation with Qatar’s seemingly cozy relations with Iran and with terror groups. In March 2016, Qatar sought to buy U.S. warplanes — but got a cold reception from the Obama administration.

FP’s Elias Groll contributed to this piece.

Photo credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images