For years, the tiny, energy-rich country of Qatar has carved out a niche in the Arab world by trying to be everything to everyone. It housed an American military base and flooded the region’s airwaves with its influential media, all while keeping close ties to Iran and a wide selection of Islamist movements. On Monday, five countries in the region announced that they were forcing Qatar to choose: Its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, Egypt and at least three other Arab nations severed all ties with the country, escalating their accusations that the Qatari monarchy supported Sunni Islamist terrorism and Iranian designs on the region. Those Arab nations not only abruptly suspended diplomatic relations, as they have in the past, but also surprised many by cutting off land, air and sea travel to and from Qatar. All but Egypt, which has 250,000 people working there, ordered their citizens to leave Qatar.
The move created an immediate crisis for Qatar, whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia and which imports about 40 percent of its food from the Saudis. Residents said that people were stocking up on food and cash. And Qatari diplomats and citizens were scrambling to meet a 48-hour deadline to leave some Persian Gulf countries where they had been posted. Some analysts saw the sudden escalation as a sign that Saudi Arabia and its allies had been emboldened by the recent visit from President Trump, in which he publicly embraced the Saudis as a leading partner in fighting terrorism and countering Iran’s influence. In that view, Mr. Trump, by strongly embracing the Saudis, pulled the gloves off a brawl that had long threatened to turn ugly. But it could also end up hurting American efforts to build broader coalitions in the region, and weaken an ally that has provided a vital base for the American military in its campaign against the Islamic State.
Randa Slim, at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the move raised questions about whether the Trump administration knew what it was unleashing when it further empowered the Saudis.
“Regionally, the decks are stacked against Qatar: If denied U.S. support, the Qatari emir has no option but to back down,” Ms. Slim said. “The question is what, if anything, will this administration do about it?”
The move was announced by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. The Maldives and the eastern government in divided Libya also said they were joining in the sanctions. But in a sign that some Saudi allies were still on the fence, neither Jordan nor Kuwait joined in. Air traffic was immediately disrupted, with the United Arab Emirates suspending service to Qatar by its three carriers, Etihad Airways, Emirates and FlyDubai, beginning Tuesday morning. Qatar Airways was banned from Saudi airspace.
Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world, has used that wealth in recent years to play an outsize role in regional politics. It has often sought to cast itself as a broker, trying to mediate the region’s intractable conflicts. But just as often, it has ended up angering all sides. Its actions are a study in contradictions. Qatar has good relations with Iran, but hosts the American air base. It is helping to fight the Iranian-linked Houthi rebels in Yemen, and it is backing insurgents fighting Tehran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Yet it has also established back channels to Iran and brokered deals with it. Tensions had been building for years. There was Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which challenged the established order in Egypt before being suppressed by the current government. Qatar also has supported Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip and is a rival of the Palestinian Authority. And the broadcasts of the Pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera, which Qatar funds, have long ruffled feathers across the Middle East.
Qatar’s rivals have also faulted it for condoning fund-raising for militant Islamist groups fighting in Syria — including groups tied to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State — although several of the other Sunni-led monarchies in the region have played similar roles.