News and Commentary

5 Things You Need To Know About The Qatar Mess In The Middle East

On Monday, six major Islamo-Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, severed relations with Qatar, compounding existing concerns about regional instability.

Led in large part by the Saudis, the move undoubtedly isolates the oil-rich Gulf country, leaving the Qatari emir with only a handful of possible responses.

Here are five things you need to know about the Qatar blow-up in the Middle East:

1. Qatar’s support for terrorism was cited as the chief reason for breaking diplomatic and consular ties. According to the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the decision to sever ties with the neighboring Gulf state was taken to protect “national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism.” Riyadh accused Qatar of not only supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, but al-Qaeda and ISIS as well. In addition, the Saudis said that Qatar has been surreptitiously providing aid to Shia agitators in Bahrain and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The subtext here is that Qatar is de facto allying itself with Saudi Arabia’s primary geopolitical foe, Iran, and Iran’s non-state terrorist partners, including Hezbollah and Hamas. The Saudis no longer trust Qatar to participate in sectarian proxy warfare against Shia forces. As a result, the Saudi-led Sunni military coalition against Iranian-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen has suspended Qatar from participation.

It’s unclear if the Qataris are directly or even indirectly supporting ISIS, but the state’s support for a variety of jihadist groups in the region is well-documented.

2. Overall, this is about Iran. Iran’s military activities, covert operations, and ideological efforts over the last few years have been part and parcel of a geopolitical strategy to exercise control over the Shia Crescent, stretching from Syria and Lebanon through Iran all the down way to Bahrain. Riyadh and its Sunni allies believe that Qatar has been helping Iran achieve its imperialistic ambitions by financing and backing increasingly-emboldened Shia rebels looking to topple governments in Bahrain, Yemen, and even Saudi Arabia. Suspicions about the Qataris’ loyalties have been brewing for some time. While the timing of the diplomatic war seems spontaneous, it was only a matter of time before tensions boiled over between the Sunni coalition and Qatar.

Not surprisingly, Iran has condemned the decision to isolate Qatar. “Neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed,” stated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “Coercion is never the solution. Dialogue is imperative, especially during blessed Ramadan.”

3. For Egypt, this is about the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, the Islamist group Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is public enemy number one. Under longtime Egyptian ruler President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood was sent underground and castigated as a threat to civil society. But after Mubarak was thrown out of power during the Arab Spring Tahrir Square protests, the Brotherhood hijacked the democracy-minded protests against the regime, eventually advancing Islamist politician Muhammad Morsi as a candidate for president in post-Mubarak Egypt. Morsi ultimately received a majority of the vote in what was billed as a democratic election. Ultimately, he was exposed as a fanatic wolf in sheep’s clothing. Following an attempt to rewrite the constitution, consolidate power, and eliminate judicial review, the Egyptian military, led by General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi initiated a coup and jailed Morsi. Sisi rose to power and went to work on purging the reawakened Brotherhood with merciless force. As long as Qatar lends its support to the Brotherhood, Egypt, particularly under Sisi, will take necessary steps to alienate and weaken Doha.

4. This isn’t your everyday diplomatic row. This is a full-fledged crisis. Five of the Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya, have suspended air and sea travel to and from Qatar. That’s unprecedented. While a handful of these countries have periodically cut off and reinstated diplomatic ties with Qatar over the years, neighboring countries in the Gulf have never blocked all transport to and from Qatar. Saudi Arabia has asked Qataris to leave the country. The Kingdom will also block Qataris from entering the country. Bahrain and the UAE are asking their citizens to leave Qatar immediately. Qatar, in turn, is asking its citizens to leave Bahrain and the UAE. Qatari state-run propaganda Al Jazeera News offices in Saudi Arabia have been shut down by Saudi authorities as the Qataris criticize Saudi-run al-Arabiya news. State-run airline companies have also curtailed their services.

5. Qatar has responded, saying that the decision to cut ties is a “violation of sovereignty.”

“The State of Qatar has been subjected to a campaign of lies that have reached the point of complete fabrication. It reveals a hidden plan to undermine the State of Qatar,” reads a statement released by the Qatari foreign ministry.

“Qatar is an active member of the Gulf Cooperation Council and is fully committed to its charter. Qatar respects the sovereignty of other nations and does not interfere in their internal affairs, and it has fulfilled its role in fighting terrorism and extremism,” continues the statement. “It is clear that the media campaign of fabrications has failed to sway public opinion in the region, and among Gulf countries in particular, and this explains the continued escalation against Qatar.”

“Their purpose is clearly the imposition of guardianship over Qatar, which is in itself a violation of its sovereignty, and is rejected outright,” concludes the statement.

In other words, Qatar is denying that it has been supporting destabilizing terrorist activity in the region, despite evidence to the contrary.

Interestingly enough, the foreign ministry’s official statement fails to include Egypt in the list of countries participating in the cessation of ties. Egypt appears to be more ambivalent about the decision than Saudi Arabia, the powerhouse Gulf State that’s leading the cavalry charge. In fact, Egypt has not pushed forward rhetoric about expelling citizens in the wake of the geopolitical crisis. Qatar doesn’t appear to be retaliating against Egyptian citizens, either. Nevertheless, Egypt has demanded that Qatar’s ambassador leave within 48 hours, demonstrating clearly which side of the dispute they stand on.