The four Arab states also close air and sea routes to their neighbor
Saudi King Salman, right, walks with the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in Riyadh on Nov. 10, 2015. Photo: faisal al nasser/Reuters
Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries severed diplomatic and some commercial links with Qatar Monday, a dramatic move that exposed divides among U.S. allies in the Middle East over policy toward Iran and the role of political Islam in the region.
In cutting ties, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt accused the tiny Gulf state of backing terrorism and meddling in their affairs. The step marked a sharp escalation of a rift between the countries that surfaced late last month, when Qatar’s state-controlled news agency carried pro-Iranian comments that it later said were the result of a hack.
The spat among U.S. allies carries high stakes for the Trump administration.
Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, and American aircraft and personnel engaged in the fight against Islamic State are stationed there, while Bahrain hosts the Fifth Fleet, one of its largest naval fleets. Saudi Arabia’s move, in lockstep with its closest Arab partners, follows President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh last month, during which he announced arms sales worth almost $110 billionand pledged close cooperation with the country on counterterrorism.
“It seems that the Saudis and Emiratis feel emboldened by the alignment of their regional interests—toward Iran and Islamism—with the Trump administration,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
A State Department official in the region said Monday that the diplomatic breakdown between the U.S.’ chief military partners in the region illustrated the dangers of the Trump administration’s slow move to fill key posts in Washington’s foreign service. American diplomats have been instrumental in resolving past diplomatic spats between Qatar and other Gulf nations; yet Stuart Jones, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau, resigned last month and the White House has yet to announce a replacement. Many other top posts remain unfilled or staffed by Obama administration holdovers.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played down the rift between Qatar and fellow Arab states, saying he hoped it would be resolved diplomatically. “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences,” Mr. Tillerson said at a press conference at Government House in Sydney. He offered the U.S. as a mediator in the dispute.