It’s the biggest political crisis to hit the Middle East in years.
Qatari nationals are now officially on notice to leave neighboring countries within two weeks after an unprecedented diplomatic freeze of the nation by key allies and neighbors.
A total of nine nations have so far moved to indefinitely sever ties with Qatar — a country of nearly 2.3 million people, mostly foreign workers.
Those inside the country are now contemplating what life might look like under diplomatic isolation – an almost imaginable predicament for a wealthy country, yet one that relies almost solely on imported food.
Qatar has said the justification for the freeze – allegations that it supports terrorism and destabilizes the region – are “unjustified” and “baseless.”
Here’s what you need to know to get up to speed:
– The original list of five countries severing ties – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen – has now expanded to nine, with the addition of Mauritius, Mauritania, the Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based government.
– Saudi Arabia has severed all land, sea and air links with Qatar, and the UAE has closed its airports and harbors to Qatari flights and shipping.
– Etihad, Emirates, Fly Dubai and Gulf Air have halted all flights in and out of Doha, the Qatari capital. Qatar Airways says it’s halting flights to Saudi Arabia.
– Qatari diplomats have been given notice to leave their foreign posts.
– Qatari citizens have been told they have 14 days to leave Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, and those countries also banned their own citizens from entering Qatar.
So what’s behind it?
Gulf allies have repeatedly criticized Qatar for alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood, a nearly 100-year-old Islamist group considered a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Ties cut with Qatar
The UAE accused Qatar of “funding and hosting” the group in its statement announcing the severance of ties. However, analysts say the rift is also driven by the belief that Qatar is too closely aligned with Iran.
The diplomatic crisis came two weeks after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt blocked several Qatari media outlets – including Al Jazeera – over comments allegedly made by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Al Thani reportedly hailed Iran as an “Islamic power” and criticized US President Donald Trump’s policy towards Tehran.
Qatar said the website was hacked – and on June 6, US officials told CNN that US investigators believe Russian hackers were behind it.
US officials said the goal of the Russians appeared to be creation of a rift among the US and its allies.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are at odds over a number of regional issues, including Iran’s nuclear program and what Saudis see as Tehran’s growing influence in the kingdom’s sphere of influence – especially in Syria, Lebanon and neighboring Yemen.
Qatar and Iran share the largest underwater natural gas field in the world. But recent Gulf reports have charged the relationship goes beyond resource management, accusing Qatari officials of meeting with the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
How will this affect people in Qatar?
Qatar is rich in oil and gas but it doesn’t really produce its own food – almost all of comes from Saudi Arabia. Now the borders have been shut, food prices could skyrocket. Reports suggest that Qataris are stocking up on food in anticipation of food shortages.
Qatar Airlines is a major global airlines but it’s not longer allowed to use the airspace above Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE. That means flights to Africa and North America may have to make big detours – raising fuel costs, flight times and potentially ticket prices.
However, the country has a big war chest – a more than $300 billion sovereign wealth fund that was founded in 2005 to grow the money made off the nation’s natural resources that should help it weather any financial hit.
Qataris are a minority in their own country – it’s home to as many as two million foreign workers, mainly from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
The Qatari embassy in the UAE advised its citizens to travel via Kuwait or Oman if they are unable to fly direct. It also offered to pay for their tickets if they don’t have the means to purchase them.
Some expats in the Gulf were also scrambling to find other ways of getting to, and from, Doha. Many families live in Dubai and commute to Doha – normally just a 45-minute flight away.
How will it affect the rest of the world?
Any kind of instability in the Middle East tends to send up oil prices, and the longer prices stay high, the more likely it is that it will cost more to fill up your tank. So far, oil and gas markets have been taking the crisis in their stride.
However, Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at CFD and FX provider AxiTrader, says that what happens next will be key.
“Qatar is the world’s biggest LNG exporter. It has pipelines in the Gulf and could retaliate but cutting off supplies to its neighbors. (It’s) something to watch.”
The diplomatic crisis is also the latest complication for the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar is preparing to host. If the travel restrictions remain in place long term, they could keep supplies, workers and eventually soccer fans from moving freely in and out of the country.
The tournament is already facing allegations of worker misconduct, and it had to slash the budget for the soccer tournament by more than 40% because of the falling price of oil.
What about the United States. Is it involved?
Yes and no.
On June 6, US President Donald Trump appeared to take credit for the Mideast split.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look,” he tweeted.
Pentagon officials moved quickly to limit any damage, with spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis telling reporters Tuesday that the US is “grateful to the Qataris for the longstanding support for our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security.”
Countries in the Gulf are key to the US-led coalition against ISIS, with Qatar hosting the Al Udeid Air Base, the US military’s main regional center for daily air missions and coordination of all air operations.
Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May as part of his first foreign trip as US President. While there he announced a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, and sent a message that nations there must take greater responsibility to rein in bad actors.
However, Trump and his officials have also praised Qatar. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with their Qatari counterparts in April and May. And at the May summit in Saudi Arabia, Trump said US relations with Qatar were “extremely good.”
Gulf rift complicates US position in Mideast
What will Qatar do?
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will now be in a position to demand concessions from Qatar in return for restoration of diplomatic and economic ties.
Analysts said that one of their demands could be the closure of television network Al Jazeera. Established two decades ago in Doha, Al Jazeera helped to expand Qatar’s political influence by broadcasting Arabic-language programs that were seen in millions of living rooms around the region.
The network went on to launch English-language programming.
“Qatar’s Emir first gesture of good will likely be the shutting of Al Jazeera TV network entirely, which could happen in months if not weeks,” Sultan Al Qassemi, a prominent regional commentator, said in a tweet.
Will Qatar sacrifice Al Jazeera to mend regional ties?
CNN’s Muhammad Lila, Zahraa Alkhalisi, Charles Riley, Barbara Starr, Nicole Gaouette and BR