Arab States Sever Ties With Qatar, Jeopardizing Trump’s Anti-Iran Axis

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt and Yemen announced the decision as a response to Qatar's "embrace of terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region"

Egyptian President al-Sisi, Saudi King Salman, and President Trump in Riyadh — Twitter
Jun 05, 2017 at 7:06 AM ET

Saudi Arabia and four other Arab countries have halted diplomatic relations with Qatar over its ties to Islamist groups and to Iran, amid a rare public spat that has been intensifying since President Donald Trump visited Riyadh last month.

The decision issued by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Yemen was a response to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region,” said Saudi Arabia’s state news agency, citing official sources. The countries perceive Qatar to be promoting a conciliatory line toward Saudi Arabia’s arch nemesis, Iran, and oppose its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist political group outlawed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The countries will close sea and air borders, meaning that Abu Dhabi-based Etihad and Dubai-based Emirates flights to Qatar will be suspended as of Tuesday. Qatari troops will also be banned from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has for the past two years been battling Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in a proxy war that has killed 13,000 civilians and brought the country to the brink of famine.

The Qatari foreign ministry called Monday’s decision “unjustified,” saying that its aim “is to impose guardianship on the state. This by itself is a violation of [Qatar’s] sovereignty.”

This is not the first time that members of the Saudi-led bloc halted diplomatic ties with Qatar, a gas-rich Persian Gulf nation that is home to the largest U.S. military base in the region and is slated to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In late May, just days after Qatar participated in Trump’s Arab summit in Riyadh, Qatar claimed that hackers used its state-run news site to publish fake comments from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, cautioning Arab states against confronting Iran and defending the Iranian-backed Hamas and Hezbollah. Doha called it a “shameful cybercrime,” but its outraged Sunni Gulf neighbors responded by blocking Qatari-based media, including al-Jazeera.

But Monday’s feud seems unprecedented in its scope, and plays especially badly for President Donald Trump, who during his first overseas visit lauded a unified Sunni-led Gulf coalition to counter Iran. Trump sought to entrench the deal for an “Arab NATO” with a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

“All nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism” in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and throughout the region, Trump said in Riyadh.

Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at Rice University, told AFP last month that “it may be the case that the Saudis and Emiratis feel emboldened by the success of their re-set of ties with the Trump presidency to become more assertive in regional affairs.”

The escalation, which shows no signs of abating, exposes Qatar’s high stakes in the region’s fragile geopolitical equation, as the Qatari stock market plunged on Monday by eight percent, the lowest since 2009.

Amid the controversy, though, Iran is unabashedly taking victory laps on social media, issuing derogatory tweets against the United States and against their Gulf allies.

“When Donald Trump made his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, Tehran was alarmed,” wrote Iranian-American foreign policy scholar Majid Rafizadeh in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, who said that the U.S. president’s anti-Iran coalition spurred Iran to use Qatar to sow discord within the Gulf bloc.

“Iran is rejoicing in the fact that the divisions in Qatar and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] allies are diverting attention from the region’s geopolitical and security priority; which is confronting Iran’s military adventurism and expanding influence in the Middle East,” Rafizadeh wrote.

Iran’s Ayotollah Ali Khamenei took the occasion of the London Bridge ISIS attack on Saturday night to tweet that the American and Gulf states’ policies were failing to contain terrorism.

“This is the inferno they set up & has now backfired on them,” tweeted Khamenei early Monday.