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What you need to know about the Qatar crisis

Lewis Sanders IV
July 21, 2017

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, along with several Arab allies, cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in a move that sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and beyond. DW examines the players, their interests and the implications.

A veiled woman walks in front of the city skyline in Doha
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/K. Jebreili

How did the crisis start?

Cyber attack: In late May, the state-run Qatar News Agency was hit by a major cyber attack, in which hackers posted articles that cast positive light on Iran, Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

Although Qatar denied the authenticity of statements attributed to Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani describing Iran as a "regional and Islamic power," the articles nonetheless prompted anger from Saudi Arabia and its regional allies.

While Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, among others, had for years criticized Doha for maintaining relations with Iran and supporting Islamist organizations, the articles published during the cyber attack appeared to mark the last straw in the simmering diplomatic spat.

Cutting ties: On June 5, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, cutting all air, land and sea links with the Arab Gulf state. Several of the countries ordered Qatari diplomats to leave and recalled their ambassadors from Doha.

The UAE accused Qatar of destabilizing the region by supporting "terrorist, extremist and sectarian organizations," while Saudi Arabia said the measures aimed to protect itself from the "dangers of terrorism and extremism." Doha dismissed the allegations, saying they had "no basis in fact."

Shoppers stock up on suppliers at a supermarket in Doha
In import-dependent Qatar, people flocked to supermarkets to stock up on essential goods following the announcement of the diplomatic measuresImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Doha News

Who are the major players?

Saudi Arabia: The Saudi Arabian government has for years criticized Qatar for maintaining friendly relations with Iran, supporting Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and hosting the al-Jazeera Media Network. Consequently, Riyadh has come to view Qatar as a regional competitor despite strong economic ties.

The kingdom has put a lot of resources into positioning itself as the pre-eminent source for Sunni Islam and exporting its conservative model known as Wahhabism, which tends to clash with how Qatar-backed organizations envision political Islam. The UAE, Egypt and other Sunni Arab states have expressed similar concerns regarding Qatar and followed Riyadh's lead during the crisis.

Qatar: The Qatari government has denied the allegations made by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies concerning its support for terrorism and extremism in the region. Earlier this month, Qatar's foreign minister said fighting terrorism required "collective work and not political and ideological terrorism," an apparent description of Saudi Arabia's diplomatic manoeuvres.

Doha has vowed not to give into demands made by the Saudi-led group, which include shuttering the al-Jazeera news network and cutting all relations with Iran, saying they are aimed at "outsourcing our foreign policy." There were initially fears that import-dependent Qatar may not be able withstand the diplomatic crisis. However, it has managed to stabilize its economy and meet local demand for essential goods with the help of Turkey and Iran.

United States: The US has held a precarious position in the crisis after an embarrassing episode of tweets from its president. A day after Saudi Arabia and its allies announced the diplomatic measures, US President Donald Trump claimed credit for the crisis on Twitter, saying Arab leaders "pointed to Qatar" when discussing the funding of terrorism.

However, the Pentagon and State Department have attempted to de-escalate the situation, in large part due to Qatar's strategic role in region, especially in the fight against the "Islamic State" militant group.

US State Secretary Rex Tillerson has described Doha's position as "reasonable" and called on the Saudi-led group to ease the blockade. In July, the US and Qatar signed a memorandum to restrict terrorism financing.

US, Qatar sign agreement on fighting terrorism

What does Saudi Arabia and its allies want?

The Saudi-led group issued a list of 13 demands that Qatar needed to meet in order to end the diplomatic crisis. The list included shutting down a Turkish military facility in Qatar, stopping the finance of terrorist groups, breaking contact with opposition groups in Arab Gulf states and aligning its military and economic policies with other Gulf and Arab countries, among others. The Saudi-led group gave Doha ten days to meet the demands.

However, Doha responded by describing the ultimatum as "unreasonable." It said it would not comply with the demands because they were aimed at undermining the country's sovereignty. After the ultimatum's deadline, the Saudi-led group later issued six principles which it urged Qatar to adhere to. They included refraining from meddling in Gulf Arab states' internal affairs and combating terrorism and extremism in all its forms.

How does the crisis affect the region?

Fight against 'Islamic State': Qatar hosts the al-Udeid Air Base, known as the largest American military facility in the Middle East. The base is instrumental in the fight against the "Islamic State," and allows US-led coalition forces to strike targets in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 Trump told American broadcaster CBN that if American troops ever had to move due to fallout from the crisis, "we would have ten countries willing to build us another one, believe me, and they will pay for it." Moving troops from the strategic base would obstruct efforts to uproot the militant group in Iraq and Syria, according to analysts.

Regional influence: The diplomatic crisis has pitted two countries against each other which have backed differing views on the political role of Sunni Islam in the region. Qatar, along with Turkey, has supported Islamist organizations open to democracy, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Riyadh and its allies have instead supported governments such as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led a military coup against Muslim Brotherhood leader and former President Mohammed Morsi. However, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both been accused of supporting extremist groups in the Syrian conflict, allegations which they have denied.

Mediation: Qatar has played a crucial role in mediating between states and terrorist organizations. For example, Doha played an important role in mediating the release of US Marine Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured and held by the Taliban. Depending on Qatar's course of action, the diplomatic crisis could compromise its position as a key mediator in the region.

A US warplane moves along a pathway at the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar
The al-Udeid Air Base is the largest US military facility in the Middle East and plays a strategic role in the fight against the "Islamic State." Withdrawing troops from the base could lead to major setbacks in combating the militant group.Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Amy M. Lovgren