Several Arab countries are breaking ties with Qatar. We look at the reasons why, and what the consequences may be
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor (Guardian, UK)
Several Arab countries have announced that they are breaking diplomatic ties with Qatar.
Gulf plunged into diplomatic crisis as countries cut ties with Qatar
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain announced measures early on Monday. Several hours later the internationally recognised Yemeni government and Libya’s eastern-based government – which has little authority – followed suit. The Maldives then announced it too was cutting ties.
Saudi Arabia said it would close borders, severing land, sea and air contact with the tiny peninsula. The Saudis, the UAE and Bahrain have given Qataris two weeks to leave, and only 48 hours for its diplomats to quit.
Why have they cut ties?
Saudi Arabia said it took the decision because of Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region”, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, Islamic State and groups supported by Iran.
What is the background to the row?
Tensions with Qatar’s Gulf Arab neighbours have grown in recent years as part of a tussle for regional leadership. Qatar has backed Islamist movements in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. It has also counselled improving relations with Tehran, the Saudi’s arch-enemy.
Rivalry with Iran – with which Saudi Arabia is engaged in a series of proxy wars across the region – looms over the dispute and a spark for the current crisis was Donald Trump’s visit to the region, during which he robustly denounced Tehran. Some analysts have suggested that the Gulf states have been emboldened by Trump and the row with Qatar is a Saudi-led attempt to bring Qatar into line.
Military and influence: how do the countries involved compare?
Qatar has one of the smallest militaries in the region. Its US$1.9bn defence budget represents 3.4% of Saudi Arabia US$56.7bn and it has less soldiers, tanks and aircraft than Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates. It, however, is home to US Central Command and 10,000 US service personnel.
One of Qatar’s most significant assets is the Doha-funded Al-Jazeera news channel, whose influence is resented by other government. Last month, four Arab countries blocked Qatar-based media after comments attributed to the Qatari emir in praise of Iran appeared. Qatar alleged that hackers had taken over the website of its state-run news agency and faked the comments.
What is Qatar saying?
Qatar says it is the victim of a dirty tricks operation designed to denigrate its reputation in Washington. In a statement it said:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the state of Qatar expressed its deep regret and surprise at the decisions by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain to close their borders and airspace, and sever diplomatic relations with the state of Qatar, bearing in mind that these measures are unjustified and based on false claims and assumptions.
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.
What are the short-term implications?
There was an immediate effect on air travel in the region: Qatar Airways, one of the region’s major long-haul carriers, said it was suspending all flights to Saudi Arabia; Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier, said it would suspend flights to Qatar “until further notice”; Emirates, the Dubai-based carrier, announced it would suspend Qatar flights starting on Tuesday; and the Dubai-based budget carrier flydubai said it would suspend flights to and from Doha from Tuesday.
The Qatar stock exchange meanwhile fell nearly 8% and it is facing fears of shortages of vital food imports after the main land route into the country was closed. Qatar occupies a tiny headland on the Arabian peninsular, with a single land border shared with Saudi Arabia and across the sea from Iran.
What does it mean for the oil price?
Oil prices are always sensitive to geopolitical tensions and the prospect of any disruption to production. While it was not clear how the dispute would affect supply, traders were quick to push crude prices higher on Monday morning. But the gains were short-lived. Brent crude jumped by about $1 to above $50 a barrel at one point before easing back to $49.64.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are all members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). Saudi Arabia is the de facto leader of the group as the largest oil producer in the world, while Qatar is one of Opec’s smallest oil producers. The group recently agreed to cut oil production to help prop up prices; some investors were concerned on Monday that the dispute with Qatar could affect that deal. That plan to boost prices has also been undermined by rising oil output in the US.
The row has also fanned concerns about the liquefied natural gas (LNG) market. Qatar is the world’s biggest supplier of LNG and Egypt and UAE are key recipients. Although Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have all closed transport links with Qatar, the state can still ship out both LNG and oil to other countries by sea.
What are the UK’s arms sales to the region?
The UK’s defence industry has long depended on arms sales to wealthy Gulf states, with successive governments regarding the Gulf as critical to UK strategic interests in the Middle East, including acting as a bulwark against Iran and Islamist extremism. Faced by repeated human rights abuses, especially after the Arab spring, the UK has argued that discreet private pressure is the best way to change the behaviour of the monarchies.
Over the past year, the scale of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, and allegations of repeated attacks on civilians, has prompted intense criticism culminating in a high court case. In the case, it has been alleged ministers breached export controls guidelines by selling arms to a country in serious breach of international humanitarian law. No judgment has yet been issued by the court.