The unprecedented decision by three Gulf states to pull their envoys from Qatar reflects their frustration with Doha's activist foreign policy and its support for the widely banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Tensions in the Gulf Cooperation Council reached a new high when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain publicly accused Qatar of meddling in their internal affairs, a charge dismissed by Doha, which cited instead differences in regional politics.
But the dispute is rooted in “Qatar’s position towards groups that are considered terrorist by other Gulf countries,” said Saudi analyst Abdulaziz Sager, namely the Muslim Brotherhood of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
“Gulf countries cannot accept that Qatar maintains its policies,” said Sager, who heads the Gulf Research Centre think-tank.
Doha was a staunch supporter of Morsi, and stood out among Gulf monarchies in criticising his arrest following his overthrow by the military in July.
As Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait pledged billions of dollars to Cairo’s military-installed government, Qatar slammed Egypt’s deadly crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar also supported Islamists in other countries roiled by Arab Spring uprisings, including Tunisia and Libya. In Syria, both Qatar and Saudi are major supporters of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
At home, Gulf countries accuse Doha of backing Islamist opponents, “giving its citizenship to Gulf and Arab personalities” not welcomed by those monarchies, Sager said.
The UAE has tried dozens of nationals and Egyptians over the past two years, accusing them of links to the Muslim Brotherhood and plotting to overthrow the government.
A UAE court on Monday jailed a Qatari citizen for seven years for raising funds for a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group.
UAE daily Al-Khaleej said Wednesday that Gulf countries had asked Qatar “not to host Gulf oppositions… not to support the Muslim Brotherhood.. and the Huthis in Yemen,” a Shiite rebel group in the north of the country.
Qatar promised to cooperate but “it did not deliver,” the paper said.
– ‘New faces, same politics’ –
Gas-rich Qatar went through a major political shakeup in June, when the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, suddenly abdicated in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim.
The change also saw the sudden withdrawal from the political scene of the maverick Prime Minister sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, who had led Doha’s quest to become a regional player.
Although this change was initially seen as a departure from Qatar’s controversial regional policies, some now see the shuffle as cosmetic.
“Gulf states have realised that the change was just in the faces, not the politics,” Sager said, adding that the former emir “remains the one at the helm.”
Emirati analyst Ibtissam al-Ketbi says Qatar’s old guard and the new ruling elite clash over the emirate’s policy towards its Gulf partners.
“One side wants escalation, and the other wants to ease tension. The former emir supports the first side, and the current emir supports the second,” she said.
Tension has been simmering for some time within the Gulf Cooperation Council, but mediation efforts led by the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, had until now succeeded in keeping the lid on.
He mediated a tripartite summit with the Saudi monarch and the emir of Qatar in Riyadh in November.
The crisis erupted, however, as Sheikh Sabah convalesced in a hospital in New York after undergoing what the royal court called “minor surgery,” without elaborating.
“Qatar cannot live without the Gulf, and the Gulf in its turn cannot live without Qatar,” said Sager, adding that Doha’s decision not to reciprocate the recall of envoys shows an inclination “to ease tension.”