Arab na­tions sever ties with Qatar

Five na­tions ac­cuse emi­rate of sup­port for ter­ror­ism. Block­ade fol­lows Trump’s call for anti-Iran al­liance.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Molly Hennessy-Fiske molly.hennessy-fiske @la­times.com Times staff writer W.J. Hen­ni­gan in Wash­ing­ton and spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran con­trib­uted to this re­port.

A block­ade over ac­cu­sa­tions that the emi­rate sup­ports ter­ror­ism trig­gers a diplo­matic cri­sis.

BEIRUT — Five Arab coun­tries have ac­cused Qatar of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ism and cut diplo­matic ties with the Per­sian Gulf na­tion, trig­ger­ing the re­gion’s worst diplo­matic cri­sis in years.

Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Egypt, Bahrain and the in­ter­na­tion­ally backed gov­ern­ment in Yemen halted all land, air and sea traf­fic to Qatar on Mon­day and ejected its diplo­mats. All but Egypt, which has thou­sands of peo­ple work­ing in Qatar, or­dered their cit­i­zens to leave the coun­try.

Qatari diplo­mats were given 48 hours to leave their posts in Bahrain and Egypt, while Qatari cit­i­zens had two weeks to de­part Bahrain, Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates. Al Jazeera news agency, which is based in Doha, Qatar’s cap­i­tal, was forced to shut down its of­fice in Saudi Ara­bia on Mon­day.

Qatar was also ex­pelled from the Saudi-led coali­tion fight­ing Houthi rebels in Yemen.

While Per­sian Gulf coun­tries have pulled their am­bas­sadors from Doha in the past and even blocked Qatar’s bor­ders, the co­or­di­nated block­ade was “shock­ingly ag­gres­sive,” said Saeed Wa­habi, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst based in the United Arab Emi­rates.

“They are kind of putting them un­der sanc­tions,” he said. “I can’t think of some time when a gulf coun­try went un­der a siege or sanc­tions.”

Qatar, a coun­try of 2.4 mil­lion, shares a bor­der with Saudi Ara­bia and im­ports al­most all of its food, about 40% di­rectly from the king­dom. Qataris who of­ten cross the bor­der to shop in Saudi Ara­bia will be blocked, and sev­eral air­lines have sus­pended ser­vice.

Ten­sions have been build­ing for years as Qatar ex­panded its reach through Al Jazeera, con­ducted busi­ness with Iran, con­doned fundrais­ing for mil­i­tant Is­lamist groups and har­bored lead­ers of the Mus­lim Brother­hood, which is banned by other Arab na­tions.

“Qatar was able over the past 10 years or so to punch above its weight be­cause of its in­vest­ments and these me­dia out­lets, which sup­port Qatari for­eign pol­icy,” said H.A. Hel­lyer, a Cairobased non­res­i­dent fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Rafik Hariri Cen­ter for the Mid­dle East. “That is go­ing to be re­duced tremen­dously.”

Qatari of­fi­cials, who have de­nied ac­cu­sa­tions that they fund the Mus­lim Brother­hood and other ex­trem­ist groups, showed no sign of back­ing down. “The state of Qatar has been sub­jected to a cam­paign of lies that have reached the point of com­plete fab­ri­ca­tion,” its For­eign Min­istry said in a state­ment.

But Hel­lyer said that eco­nomic pres­sure will even­tu­ally force Qatar to make con­ces­sions, par­tic­u­larly to Saudi Ara­bia. “I don’t think Doha will hold out too long,” he said. “It doesn’t have too many places to go when it comes to airspace or a land cor­ri­dor. It’s sur­rounded.”

Saudi of­fi­cials at­trib­uted the de­ci­sion to cut diplo­matic ties to Qatar’s “em­brace of var­i­ous ter­ror­ist and sec­tar­ian groups aimed at desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion.” Wa­habi said Qatar has been un­will­ing to en­force re­stric­tions on ter­ror­ism fi­nanc­ing and to part­ner with the U.S. on counter-ter­ror­ism the way Saudi Ara­bia has.

Saudi lead­ers are also wor­ried about Qatar’s long­time links to Iran, the Shi­ite Mus­lim power vy­ing for re­gional in­flu­ence with Saudi Ara­bia, the lead­ing Sunni Mus­lim power. Qatar is pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni, with a Shi­ite mi­nor­ity.

In late May, Qatar’s state-run news agency pub­lished com­ments from its emir, Sheik Tamim bin Ha­mad al Thani, ex­press­ing sup­port for Iran, the mil­i­tant groups Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah, as well as Is­rael, and sug­gest­ing Pres­i­dent Trump would not stay in power. Qatari of­fi­cials blamed the com­ments on hack­ers.

Turkey, which has good re­la­tions with Qatar and other Per­sian Gulf coun­tries, has of­fered to me­di­ate the diplo­matic con­flict. But the Mus­lim holy month of Ra­madan is un­der­way, to be fol­lowed by the Eid holiday. Many an­a­lysts don’t ex­pect a res­o­lu­tion un­til at least the be­gin­ning of July.

U.S. of­fi­cials in­sisted that the rift would not af­fect the re­gional coali­tion fight­ing Is­lamic State.

“I am pos­i­tive there will be no im­pli­ca­tions com­ing out of this dra­matic sit­u­a­tion at all, and I say that based on the com­mit­ment that each of these na­tions that you just re­ferred to have made to this fight,” De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis told re­porters Mon­day in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia.

The Pen­tagon said there was no im­me­di­ate ef­fect on op­er­a­tions at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the U.S. mil­i­tary’s largest such fa­cil­ity in the Mid­dle East. The base, 20 miles south­west of Doha, is home to 10,000 troops as well as bomber jets, re­fu­el­ing planes, cargo air­craft and a high-tech cen­ter where U.S. com­man­ders and al­lies or­ches­trate the daily air war against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

“U.S. mil­i­tary air­craft con­tinue to con­duct mis­sions in sup­port of on­go­ing op­er­a­tions in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan,” Adam Stump, a Pen­tagon spokesman, said in a state­ment, adding, “We have no plans to change our pos­ture in Qatar.”

But the Pen­tagon is con­cerned about how the diplo­matic break will af­fect the base in the long term, par­tic­u­larly if it be­comes dif­fi­cult for U.S. per­son­nel to travel there, said U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials, who de­clined to speak pub­licly.

The block­ade comes just two weeks after Trump vis­ited Saudi Ara­bia and urged mem­bers of the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil, a re­gional po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic union, to join with him in an al­liance against Iran.

Michael Knights, a Bos­ton-based an­a­lyst at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, said the mes­sage sent by U.S. of­fi­cials at the Riyadh sum­mit was clear: “Trump has sub­con­tracted the fight against po­lit­i­cal Islam to them and they need to take the lead.”

“This is them us­ing that man­date to set­tle some old scores,” Knights said. “There’s al­ways been this ten­sion with Qatar, this ri­valry be­tween the UAE and Qatar, the Saudis and Qatar. What we’re see­ing now is a very bru­tal ex­er­cise in hu­mil­i­a­tion, to break Qatar’s in­de­pen­dent spirit.”

U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, who is on a visit to Aus­tralia, down­played the se­ri­ous­ness of the dis­pute and said the United States was will­ing to help re­solve it.

Ira­nian of­fi­cials con­demned the block­ade as the lat­est in­stance of the U.S. ex­pand­ing its in­flu­ence in the re­gion.

“What is hap­pen­ing is the pre­lim­i­nary re­sult of the sword dance,” tweeted Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff of Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, re­fer­ring to Trump’s tra­di­tional dance with the Saudi king dur­ing last month’s Riyadh sum­mit.

Fayez Nurel­dine AFP/Getty Im­ages

SAUDI ARA­BIA, the United Arab Emi­rates, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen halted land, air and sea traf­fic to Qatar and ejected its diplo­mats.

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