When four Arab states led by Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties and transportation links with Qatar in June 2017, there were expectations that the rulers would resolve the spat quietly among themselves, as they did a similar dispute three years earlier. Instead, Saudi Arabia issued tough demands, Qatar refused to kowtow to its powerful Arab neighbor, and the breach hardened.
1. What’s the rift about?
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt complain about Qatar’s friendliness with Iran and accuse it of supporting terrorism, a charge the sheikhdom denies. The crisis was sparked in 2017 when hackers published a story on Qatar’s news agency quoting Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as criticizing mounting anti-Iran sentiment after a trip to the region by U.S. President Donald Trump. Qatari officials quickly deleted the comments, and appealed for calm as Saudi and U.A.E. newspapers, clerics and celebrities accused Qatar of trying to undermine efforts to isolate Iran.
2. Was it all a misunderstanding?
No. The conflict had been brewing for years. With its oil riches and custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long seen itself as the natural leader of the Persian Gulf region, if not the entire Middle East. Its strongest competitor is Iran, with whom it has a testy relationship. In addition to being rivals for regional power, the two are on opposite sides of the Sunni-Shiite split within Islam. Since Qatar began to grow wealthy from natural gas exports two decades ago, it has asserted its independence from the Saudis and sought cordial ties with Iran, with whom it shares a gigantic offshore gas field.
3. What is Trump’s position?
After initially siding with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., Trump softened on Qatar. The U.S. bases 10,000 troops and a regional air operations center there. During a July 2019 visit by Sheikh Tamim to Washington, Trump referred to him as an old friend and thanked him for investments and weapons purchases because it creates U.S. jobs.
4. What’s the role of terrorism in the dispute?
The Saudi-led group accused Qatar of supporting al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that several Gulf states have banned and designated as a terrorist group.
5. Does Qatar support al-Qaeda and Islamic State?
Some Qataris have provided support to al-Qaeda and its spinoffs, U.S. officials say. According to the State Department’sreport on international terrorism, despite government controls, “terrorist financiers within the country are still able to exploit Qatar’s informal financial system.” The U.S. report uses similar language in its section on Saudi Arabia. The report details efforts by both the Qatari and Saudi governments to counter terrorism financing. It offers greater praise of the Saudi efforts.
6. Is the Muslim Brotherhood charge true?
Qatar’s government denies it supports the Muslim Brotherhood, or any political party, but rather says it helps governments and people who may at times be governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Egypt from 2012 to 2013. While the Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago, some of its offshoots haven’t. One of them, the Palestinian group Hamas, continues to advocate armed struggle against Israeli occupation, though it has distanced itself from the larger movement. Qatar’s accusers consider the Brotherhood to be a terrorist movement. Egyptian leader Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi banned the organization there. Qatar has hosted prominent Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi since he fled Egypt in 1961, offering him a popular talk show on the state-backed Al Jazeera TV channel.
7. What have the Saudis demanded?
Saudi Arabia and its allies produced a list of 13 requirements including shutting down Qatar’s state-backed global TV station Al Jazeera, cutting back diplomatic ties with Iran, and severing relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, the group recast its list to include that Qatar must suspend “all acts of provocation” and refrain from “interfering in the internal affairs of states.” Saudi Arabia has also promoted somewhat obscure Qatari royals as possible alternatives to the emir, efforts that haven’t gained traction in Qatar.
8. How has Qatar weathered the boycott?
Qatar is the world’s wealthiest nation, on the basis of per capita income, and its economy has proven resilient. Because the country has open shipping corridors, sales of its copious supplies of gas and oil have continued uninterrupted. Saudi Arabia shocked Qatar by closing its only land border, halting shipments of food. But the smaller country quickly opened alternative trade routes and found substitute suppliers, notably Turkey, Iran and India. Denied overflight rights for Qatar Airways by the Saudi-led group, it negotiated them with Iran. Turkey has sent additional troops and conducted joint exercises with Qatar.
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