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Explainer: What's going on in Qatar and why are all its neighbours turning on it?

Saudi Arabia is leading allies in cutting off ties to Qatar over its alleged links to terrorism.

QATAR-DOHA-DAILY LIFE Supermarkets were full of people stocking up on supplies in Qatar as neighbouring countries cut off ties Source: Nikku/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

THIS WEEK AN unprecedented crisis has engulfed the Gulf region as other Arab states turned on Qatar.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE, Yemen and the Maldives cut ties with Qatar, accusing the country of backing terrorism.

This break-off in relations involved economic measures such as closure of land and maritime borders, suspension of air links and restrictions on movements by Qataris.

As a result, Qataris fearing a shortage of supplies flocked to supermarkets to stock up, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan urging all Irish citizens in the country to register themselves and their families with his department.

So, what’s going on with Qatar, and why have neighbouring nations taken this stance?

Origins

Analysts say the current crisis is in part an extension of a 2014 dispute, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain temporarily recalled their ambassadors from Doha over Qatari support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

A top Gulf official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP a major concern was the influence of Sheikh Tamim’s father, Sheikh Hamad, who had allowed the Taliban to open an office in Doha and helped arm Syrian rebels before abdicating in 2013.

“The previous emir is a big supporter of this whole extremist agenda, so we do have an issue,” the official said.

Doha has for years forged its own alliances in the region, often diverging from the politics of the six-state GCC and taking in leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas and members of the Afghan Taliban.

A senior Emirati official told AFP this week’s decision was not aimed at a change of regime in Qatar but to pressure the country to reshape its policy.

“This is a foreign policy that has gone wild,” state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash told AFP. “We need to put everything in check.”

Strained relations

Energy-rich Qatar has long had strained ties with its neighbors, but the move by Saudi Arabia and its supporters has raised fears of more volatility in the region.

On 20 May 2017, Qatar said it was the victim of a smear campaign and rejected accusations of it supporting “terrorism” ahead of a landmark visit by US President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia.

Just four days later, Qatar said that its news agency had been hacked, and “false” statements were attributed to its emir – or leader – Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al-Thani.

The statements showed support for Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Its foreign minister said the country was the victim of a “hostile media campaign”, particularly in the US.

Qatar Stranded passengers in Doha airport Source: Hadi Mizban AP/PA Images

This latest perceived show of support from Qatar for terror groups prompted the other countries in the region to take action.

US media had suggested that Russia was behind the planting of this “fake news” story about the Qatari emir, but Moscow dismissed the claim and said there was nothing to substantiate this suggestion.

In announcing it was cutting ties, Riyadh accused Qatar of harboring “terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to destabilise the region including the Muslim Brotherhood, Daesh (IS) and Al-Qaeda”.

Riyadh also accused the country of supporting Iran-backed “terrorist activities” in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Shiite-majority Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia also shut the office of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera global news channel. In the UAE, subsidiary satellite network beIn Sports went offline.

Sanctions

On Monday, the Gulf states and Egypt said they were severing ties and closing transport links with Qatar, which relies on imports from its neighbours.

The Arab countries closed air, sea and land links with Qatar, barred the emirate’s planes from their airspace and ordered Qatari citizens out within 14 days.

Philippines Qatar Source: Bullit Marquez AP/Press Association Images

Saudi Arabia also closed its borders with Qatar, effectively blocking food and other exports and prompting shoppers to flood Doha’s supermarkets.

In one store queues were up to 25-people deep as shoppers piled trollies high with supplies from rice to nappies.

“It’s a cycle of panic and I needed to get pasta,” said Ernest, a Lebanese national pushing two trollies.

The Al-Jazeera news channel has had its own problems in recent days, as the broadcaster said on Thursday that it was battling a major cyber attack.

Al-Jazeera tweeted that it was “under cyber attack on all systems, websites & social media platforms”, and a source said it was trying to repel the hack.

US involvement

The timing of this move against Qatar is not viewed as coincidental, as it comes just a couple of weeks after Donald Trump visited the region.

Picking the right stance on the matter, however, has proven tricky for the US as Qatar is home to the Al-Udeid military base, the largest US airbase in the Middle East. Home to some 10,000 troops, it is central to the US-led fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Trump has directly intervened on the issue, but in a somewhat haphazard way. He initially seemed to show support for Saudi Arabia and its allies.

trump qatar 1 Source: Donald J Trump via Twitter

He has since, however, reached out to the emir of Qatar in a bid to try and alleviate the crisis.

“The president offered to help the parties resolve their differences, including through a meeting at the White House if necessary,” Trump’s office said after the call.

The Pentagon moved quickly to smooth over any problems caused by Trump on social media, praising Qatar’s ”enduring commitment to regional security”.

Latest moves

Yesterday, Saudi Arabia and allies issued a list of individuals and entities they say are linked to Qatar over “terrorism”.

They issued the list hours after Qatar said it would not “surrender” and rejected any interference in its foreign policy.

“This list is connected to Qatar and serves suspicious agendas in an indication of the duality of Qatar policies,” said the statement from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain.

It shows that Qatar ”announces fighting terrorism on one hand and finances and supports and hosts different terrorist organisations on the other hand,” they said.

The list, however, contains at least two names already designated internationally as terrorist financiers, and against whom Qatar took action, according to a previous US Department of State report.

In response to these latest claims, Qatar authorities dismissed them as “baseless”.

“The recent joint statement issued by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE regarding a ‘terror finance watch list’ once again reinforces baseless allegations that hold no foundation in fact,” Qatar’s government said in a statement.

Diplomatic efforts are underway from the US, Turkey, Germany and France, among others to try to find a solution to the crisis before it worsens.

Germany Qatar Gabriel with Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani Source: Philipp von Ditfurth AP/Press Association Images

After a meeting with the Qatar foreign minister earlier this week, German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel stressed that “this is the hour of diplomacy”:

[I will] do everything along with our European friends, to ensure that this conflict does not further escalate.

With reporting from Sean Murray

© – AFP, 2017

Read: Trump criticises Qatar for ‘funding extremism’ despite it having largest US base in Middle East

Read: Irish citizens in Qatar being urged to register with government as diplomatic crisis deepens

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