Citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states woke up on Monday morning to what is the most severe crisis in the regional bloc’s 36-year history to date. In a closely coordinated series of statements, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, along with Egypt, announced the severing of ties with the peninsular state of Qatar.
This is by no means the first disagreement the Gulf states have had with Qatar. For many years, Al Jazeera has been a bone of contention for the Gulf states and Egypt, even before its heydays of rolling news coverage during the Arab Spring.
In September 2002, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Qatar over what it regarded as critical coverage of the Saudi peace plan, which offered Israel the normalisation of ties in exchange for peace with the Palestinians.
In 2014, the very same three Gulf states withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar for “interfering in their internal affairs, jeopardising regional security” as well as supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. A mere fortnight before the Gulf Summit in 2014, Qatar acquiesced to a number of steps that placated the Gulf states and allowed the summit to take place as scheduled. These included the closing down of Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr, the 24-hour news channel that it had dedicated solely to Egypt and was accused by Cairo of inciting against the post-Mohammad Mursi government.
This time, however, it is far more serious. Not only have these states withdrawn their ambassadors, but they have also shut down their embassies and severed ties with Doha.
In what may be the most debilitating move, Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia — which is its only land border — has been shut and all flights over Saudi and UAE airspace has been closed off to Qatar-bound flights and Qatar Airways. Qatari citizens have been given two weeks to leave Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE and all travel by these countries’ citizens to Qatar is now prohibited.
But what do these Arab Gulf states want from Doha?
Judging from local newspapers, the series of demands appears similar to the 2014 list — namely an end to Qatari “interference” in domestic politics — but this time the escalation has been so severe that it is unlikely to be resolved as easily.
Ultimately, the three Gulf states do not feel that Qatar has lived up to its side of the agreement: That rather than ceasing the critical media coverage and the support of Islamist groups, it has found other means to do so. It is likely that this time, the Gulf states will demand the complete shuttering of the Al Jazeera TV Network before any mediation can take place. Additionally, the plug will have to be pulled on networks funded by Qatar such as Al Araby Al Jadeed (The New Arab), originally set up to compete with Al Jazeera and headed by former politician and Palestinian, Azmi Bishara, who holds Israeli citizenship.
Other Qatar-backed networks that were accused of incitement on official Gulf TV channels include Al Quds Al Arabi (Arab Jerusalem) newspaper, which was founded in London in 1989, online Arabic news portal Arabi 21, the London-based website Middle East Eye, the Arabic version of Huffington Post, which is headed by former Al Jazeera boss Waddah Khanfar and Al Khaleej Al Jadeed (the New Gulf).
The Gulf states and their Egyptian ally will also demand the expulsion of all Muslim Brotherhood leaders and their Hamas affiliate figures from Qatar, along with Bishara. Other demands will include the sacking of Al Arab newspaper editor Abdullah Al Athba, who, despite his unceasing and vapid criticism of the UAE, has remained on top of the country’s most important newspaper for years.
Other non-negotiable demands by the Gulf states that I have been informed of include the reining in of the misuse of Qatari-linked charitable organisations that have also been criticised by the United States State Department, as well as the cessation of incitement against the Egyptian state in Qatari-linked media that has continued since the removal of Mursi as president in 2013.
Finally, the three Gulf states are concerned that Qatar’s ties with their adversary Iran go far beyond economic interest (both states share a common gas field) at a time when a unified front should be maintained. It seems though the initial pressure has already worked somewhat on Qatar. Last week, Doha deported Saudi activist Mohammad Al Otaibi who had arrived in Qatar in March, while a number of Hamas officials have left Qatar at the country’s request.
Qatar reacted to the diplomatic escalation by stating that the measures are “unjustified” and that the aim is “to impose guardianship on the state”. However, it is difficult to see how the measures taken by the Gulf states will not have an adverse effect on the residents of the state of Qatar as per the statement carried by the Qatar News Agency.
For starters, Qatar imports more than 90 per cent of its food supply; and by one estimate, about 40 per cent of that comes through its only land border, which is now closed. Within hours, photos started circulating on social media of Qatari supermarket aisles that have been emptied by panicked shoppers. Furthermore, Gulf media has hinted at an escalation of the dispute with Qatari commercial and trade ties being severed next.
One Gulf official I spoke to stressed that the sanctions will remain within international law. “There is no Plan B,” he told me. Qatar must honour its commitments to its Gulf neighbours and “we will judge it by its action and no longer by its promises”.
It must de-escalate the media coverage and must sever ties with extremist groups including, but not only, the Muslim Brotherhood and groups in Yemen. “We are willing to wait a long time (until this is rectified),” the official said.
Judging by the Qatari reaction so far, it seems the Gulf states’ patience will be tested.
This article was originally published in Gulf News on June 7, 2017.