Diplomatic action against Qatar by Saudi Arabia did not come as a total surprise, following a number of indications over the last few months. But the June 5 move was beyond expectations: Firstly it was not only from Saudi Arabia, but it also looks to be aiming for the economic as well as diplomatic isolation of the Gulf country.
On the morning of June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced that they had cut all ties with Qatar. This included the closure of land, air and naval borders to all movements by Qatar and asking Qatari diplomats to leave the country within 48 hours. Soon, Libya and Yemen joined them with similar reports from the Maldives. The move was explained by Qatar’s alleged involvement in “terrorist” activities, implying its links with the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda affiliated extremist movements, and pro-Iran armed groups active in Saudi territory. Qatar has rebuffed the accusations as “lacking evidence.”
It can be said that this is a Saudi-Egyptian axis within the Arab countries, taking a strong stance against Qatar in order to challenge its ambitious role in the Arab Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. It may be worth recalling here the intense diplomatic traffic between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. in summer 2013 - right before the toppling of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-supported elected president of Egypt, through a military coup led by his Chief of Staff, the current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
On June 25, 2013, the same day as former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was discussing the tense situation in Egypt and its possible effects on Palestine and Israel
with Saudi King Suud al-Faysal in Jeddah, the 61-year-old Hammad al-Thani was vacating his place in Qatar for his 33-year-old son Thamim al-Thani, which had been considered a kind of soft palace coup at the time. The coup against Morsi had followed that change, and one of the main complaints from the Saudis about the older al-Thani was his open support for the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as for the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra and similar groups in the Syrian civil war.
In 2014, Thamim al-Thani took measures to extradite some members of the Brotherhood, if not all of them. Then in 2015 Qatar became a base for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), meaning that the heavy military presence of the U.S. makes the picture even more complicated.
Now with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and his pledge to take dramatic measures against the Brotherhood - even mentioning them in the same sentence as ISIL and al-Qaeda - the issue is back on the agenda. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan responded by saying he did not see the Brotherhood as a terror organization but rather as an ideological current. Recent commentaries by think tanks including the Washington Institute and the Brookings Institution have also argued that it may not be a good idea to denounce the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as there is no direct link between it and terrorist actions, despite some of its factions praising acts of violence and even suicide bombings by terrorist groups.
The Saudi-Egyptian move coincided with two important developments in the region:
1- It took place right after a major $110 billion weapons deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
2- It took place right after the launching of the Raqqa offence on ISIL, which has so far only been officially announced by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım.
The Saudis have also said there was no place left for the Qataris in the Saudi-led coalition against pro-Iran rebels in Yemen. But can the same thing be said for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL?
Possibly for this reason, in order to balance its separate interests in relations with Saudis and Qataris, the first response by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was cautious, asking both sides for calm. The Russian
reaction was also cautious, saying Saudi and Egyptian claims about Qatari support for terrorist activities should be examined more closely.
For the same reason, in order not to make a hasty move that could put Turkey in a more difficult position later on, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Ankara
was “saddened” by the crisis and was ready to do whatever is necessary to help cool down the tension.
It seems this may be the biggest diplomatic crisis in the Middle East in years. It is not likely to cool down unless at least some steps are taken by Qatar, even if it does not take all steps demanded by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.