A Saudi Arabia-led consortium of Sunni Muslim states’ sudden, swift and brutal renunciation of ties with Qatar on Monday was a long time coming, owing to its support for Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the director-general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry.
Though this tempest has been brewing for a while, the decision to cut off Qatar — from, among other things, 40 percent of its food supply — “constitutes a dramatic change” in the policies of Saudi Arabia, which has until now worked to bring as many Sunni groups as possible into the fold, rather than pushing them out for bad conduct, Chagai Tzuriel, the Intelligence Ministry’s top civil servant, told The Times of Israel on Monday.
In a surprise move, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt all formally cut ties with Qatar early Monday morning, accusing it of supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region. They canceled flights to the country, blocked Qatari ships from accessing ports and removed Qatari citizens from their territories. Later in the day, the Maldives, Libya and Yemen did the same.
The diplomatic earthquake could be felt around the world, as analysts and officials scrambled to make sense of the decision and predict its impact, though few Israeli officials, with the notable exceptions of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, commented on the issue on Monday.
According to Tzuriel, the oil-rich country has long been considered a “pain in the ass” by the so-called “pragmatic” Sunni camp. It is a US ally, hosting the US Central Command’s forward headquarters, but also has strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot, Hamas — two groups for which Egypt in particular has no affection — and is believed to quietly support the Houthis, Iran’s proxy in Yemen’s devastating civil war, putting it at odds with Riyadh, which is backing the other side of the conflict.
Indeed, the entire Muslim world and its conflicts are regularly seen through the lens of tensions between Saudi Arabia, which is seen as leading the Sunni states, and Iran, which helms the Shiite coalition. As a part of that fight, Riyadh has been working to bring the extreme “Muslim Brotherhood axis” — Turkey, Hamas, Qatar — into its camp, Tzuriel said, in order to take on “enemy number one”: Iran.
“An attempt was made [in the past] at reconciliation with Qatar, but it seems that today the Saudis and their allies have adopted a policy of strategic impatience and have decided to pressure Qatar to stop playing the double game it had been playing and to step up,” the director-general said.
The pressure on Qatar is not just diplomatic. With travel cut off, the Gulf nation, which is surrounded by Saudi Arabia on three sides, will no longer be able to bring in the approximately 40 percent of its food supply that comes through its land borders. In the hours following the Sunni countries’ announcements, social media quickly filled with pictures of long lines and empty super market shelves.
Though still far off, the severance of ties could prevent Qatar from hosting the World Cup, as FIFA might see the country as too risky.
According to Tzuriel, a veteran of the Mossad, Qatar is a source of frustration for the Sunni camp not only for its connections with the radical Muslim Brotherhood and Tehran, but also for its popular, often critical Al-Jazeera news network.
However, recent comments attributed (potentially falsely) to the Qatari emir in support of Iran and Israel’s enemy Hamas seem to have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, triggering Monday’s sudden fallout, Tzuriel said.
Last month, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted by state media as calling Iran an “Islamic power that cannot be ignored” and saying it “is unwise to face up against it.” Al-Thani was also quoted as saying that Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, was the “legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
After a backlash from other Gulf states, Qatar quickly denied the emir had made the statements, claiming the state media website and Twitter accounts had been hacked — but the damage was done. The same day, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates blocked Qatari media, including Al-Jazeera.
“The drastic steps against Qatar may have also drawn from the tailwind the Saudis received, in their view, from [US President Donald] Trump during his recent visit to the Kingdom when he presented a tough position against Iran and placed the Hamas in the same category as [the Islamic State], Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah,” Tzuriel wrote to The Times of Israel.
Despite the American military base outside Doha, the Gulf state is likely to be “on its own,” with no help from the Trump White House, according to H. A. Hellyer, a modern Arab history scholar, now at the Atlantic Council think tank.
“Washington will demure and stay distant from the affair, probably expecting it to be wrapped up relatively soon, in Saudi’s favor,” Hellyer wrote in an article for the council on Monday.
The Middle East scholar predicted that would mean Qatar drops its more blatant support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, change the tone of Al-Jazeera and more generally fall in line with Riyadh.
On the Israel front, Defense Minister Liberman on Monday predicted that the diplomatic fallout between the Muslim states and Qatar would create opportunities for the Jewish state to collaborate with others in the region to combat terrorism.
The crisis is “not because of Israel, not because of Jews, not because of Zionism,” but “rather from fears of terrorism,” Liberman said during a Question Time session at the Knesset on Monday.
“There is no doubt this opens many possibilities for collaboration in the fight against terror,” the defense minister added, in the first official Israeli government response to the regional shake-up.
Israel maintains quiet relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, reportedly including security cooperation, as their animosity of Iran increasingly takes precedence over their professed displeasure with Israel over the Palestinian issue.
Qatar has in the past expressed openness to maintaining trade relations with Israel and has hosted Israeli officials, although its hosting of Hamas officials keeps closer ties at bay. On Sunday, a report indicated Doha would demand some Hamas leaders leave, citing “external pressure.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog also addressed the Qatar rift on Monday, urging Israel to push for a regional peace process now that the moderate states have “cut ties from a country that funds terrorism against the Western world and Israel in particular.”
Marissa Newman contributed to this report