Monday’s sudden decision by Saudi Arabia and its allies to sever ties with Qatar was reportedly prompted in part by a billion-dollar ransom payment made by Doha to Iran and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
The other Gulf states were said to have been infuriated by the ransom paid in April to secure the release of a hunting party that included members of the Qatari royal family, who had been kidnapped in southern Iraq.
“The ransom payments are the straw that broke the camel’s back,” an unnamed expert told the Financial Times on Monday.
Regional government officials told the Financial Times that Qatar paid $700 million to Iran and Shiite militias supported by the regime. An additional sum of between $200 million and $300 million was paid to Syria, most of it to al-Qaeda-affiliated group Tahrir al-Sham, the paper said.
“So, if you add that up to the other $700 million they paid to Iran and its proxies, that means Qatar actually spent about a billion dollars on this crazy deal,” an unnamed official said.
The incident was sparked when the Qatari group was kidnapped on December 16, 2015, from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. They had legally entered Iraq to hunt inside Muthanna province, some 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of Baghdad. Shiite militias are active in that area and work closely with the neighboring Shiite power Iran.
A person involved in the negotiations said at the time that 11 of the captives were members of Qatar’s Al Thani ruling family.
Saudi Arabia and allies including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties and transport links with Qatar on Monday, accusing the Gulf state of supporting extremism.
In announcing it was severing ties, Riyadh accused Doha of harboring “terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to destabilize the region including the Muslim Brotherhood, Daesh (IS) and Al-Qaeda,” and supporting Iran-backed “terrorist activities” in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Shiite-majority Bahrain.
Gas-rich Qatar has long had strained ties with its neighbors, but the move by Riyadh and its supporters shocked observers, raising fears the crisis could destabilize an already volatile region.
The Gulf states and Egypt banned all flights to and from Qatar and ordered Qatari citizens to leave within 14 days.
Foreign powers including the United States, a key ally of Qatar, made urgent calls for talks to end the crisis.
In a first signal it was open to negotiations, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani called late on Monday for “a dialogue of openness and honesty” to resolve the crisis.
“We believe any issue could be solved through discussion and mutual respect,” he told Doha-based news channel Al-Jazeera.
He suggested Kuwait could play a role in mediating the crisis, saying that Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah had called his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, on Monday.
Kuwait and Oman did not join fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which also includes Qatar, in cutting ties with Doha.
Kuwait’s state-run news agency KUNA confirmed the phone call and said the Kuwaiti emir had also received a top Saudi envoy in an apparent mediation effort.
“Efforts aimed at containing tensions in the relations between brothers” were discussed in the phone call, KUNA reported.
Turkey, which has good relations with Qatar and other Gulf states, also offered to help, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan late on Monday spoke to the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait and to Saudi King Salman.
The crisis could have wide-ranging consequences, not just for Qatar and its citizens but across the Middle East and for Western interests.
Qatar hosts the largest US airbase in the region, which is crucial in the fight against Islamic State group jihadists, and is set to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.