Less than a month ago—specifically on June 5, shortly after sunrise—the world woke up to separate statements by three Gulf states and Egypt cutting diplomatic ties with their neighbouring country Qatar and shutting down airfields and ports to all Qatari means of transport, accusing the latter of “supporting and financing terrorism” as well as interfering in the internal affairs of Gulf states.
A few days earlier, the four countries were attending the US-Arab-Islamic Summit among more than 50 Arab and Islamic leaders and US president Donald Trump.
During the summit, several leaders condemned “countries that finance terrorism”, while after the decision to cut ties with Qatar, Trump tweeted: “so good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar.”
Egypt expressed its reasons behind the decision as due to the Qatari “persistence to adopt a stance against Egypt,” support the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) terrorist group, lodge MB leaders, target Egypt’s security, promote Al-Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s (IS) ideology, and interfere in interior issues of Egypt and other countries in the region, asserting that all attempts exerted to stop Qatar from supporting terrorist organisations did not succeed.
Tensions between Egypt, Gulf countries, and Qatar reached a peak following alleged statements by the Emir of Qatar, which were published in May on the country’s state-owned news agency QENA, accusing Egypt and the Gulf states of holding campaigns against Qatar’s image and promoting the idea that it supports terrorism, adding that these countries should “reconsider their antagonistic stance against Qatar.”
Although Qatari authorities claimed that QENA was hacked, denying the statements, various Arab media outlets questioned the validity of the statements, especially since Qatari relations between these countries were not on best terms recently.
Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry responded to the alleged statements during a televised interview on privately-owned TV, saying that Egypt is capable of affecting Qatar, adding “patience has limits”.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia expressed a different reason in the statement published in Saudi news, which read, “since 1995, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its brothers have made strenuous and continued efforts to urge the authorities in Doha to abide by its commitments and agreements; yet, they have repeatedly violated their international obligations and the agreements they signed under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for Arab States to cease the hostilities against the Kingdom and stand against terrorist groups and activities, of which the latest one was their failure to implement the Riyadh Agreement.”
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Khalifa Al-Thani was on a trip to Switzerland in 1995 when Qataris were watching a televised statement by his son, Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, announcing a coup on his father, saying, “I am not happy with what has happened, but it had to be done and I had to do it,” according to The Independent.
However, Hamad did not clarify why “it had to be done.”
The world had speculations about Gulf States’ reaction to the ouster of the Emir of Qatar, as Hamad had long expressed different political views than that of the region, particularly from Saudi Arabia. In fact, he had good relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s political and ideological rival, and Israel.
In 1996, Hamad ended a coup attempt by his cousin and accused Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain of plotting against him, starting a loop of accusations of interference.
Friends and foes
The political stances of Hamad and his son, current Emir of Qatar Tamim Al-Thani, often did not align with Qatar’s neighbours, resulting in the witnessed political disputes.
In 1997, Qatar hosted a regional conference attended by an Israeli delegation to enhance economic relations between Arabs and Israel, which Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak refused to attend because of Israel’s attacks on Palestinians at the time, according to state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram.
Boycotting the conference sparked more tensions between Egypt and Qatar in the form of statements by both countries accusing the other of interference, treason, or supporting terrorism.
However, about a decade later, Mubarak said in a televised interview that the reason behind political disputes between Egypt and Qatar was his criticism to Hamad’s coup, as the latter’s father was in Egypt before heading to Switzerland.
Furthermore, Qatar’s close ties with Iran link it with supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia often accuses Qatar of arming the Al-Nusra Front in Syria, a jihadist rebel group linked to Al-Qaeda, while Egypt has long accused Qatar of supporting and financing the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group both in Egypt and internationally.
Since 2013, Egyptian-Qatari relations have witnessed several diplomatic tensions, as Qatar expressed its support for Egypt’s ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who was affiliated with the MB.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors to Qatar, accusing Qatar of supporting extremist groups and individuals, threatening the stability and security of the region. But Qatar did not withdraw its ambassadors.
Clash of the satellites
The conflict between Arab states and Qatar was often sparked by media publications and published statements.
In 1997, former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Safty was assigned to travel to Qatar to review the reasons for the disputes.
“Qatari officials were mad that the Egyptian Rosalyousef magazine had published a cartoon of the Emir back then changing the diapers of his son, the current Emir,” Al-Safty told Daily News Egypt, adding, “I immediately contacted the magazine’s editor-in-chief, who, by his turn, denied the Qatari claims, adding that no cartoon was published with such content.”
Al-Safty added that Qatari officials condemned the alleged statements by Mubarak against the Emir.
The Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs then also criticised Egyptian media, accusing Egyptian journalists of “attempting to ruin Qatari-UAE relations,” according to Al-Hayat newspaper.
On the other hand, in 2002, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Qatar due to Qatar’s news channel Al-Jazeera’s reporting on the former.
Hamad founded the Qatari state-owned news network Al-Jazeera in 1996, which has been criticised by Arab governments since.
The news network has been accused of “promoting terrorism, disseminating false news, and distorting the image of Arab states,” among other accusations made by Arab states over the years.
In 2006, another dispute took place between Qatar’s first lady, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned and Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat for “a propaganda campaign against Qatar and its leadership.”
Egyptian and Bahraini authorities have blocked all Al-Jazeera outlets in both countries following the latest disputes.
Furthermore, Egypt has reportedly arrested and detained a number of Al-Jazeera reporters over the past four years.
During the political disputes in the late 90s, several Egyptian residents in Qatar were let go of their jobs.
Al-Safty said that he originally travelled in April 1997 to Doha, after knowing that during six months, the number of Egyptian labour in Qatar was cut to half.
“It is their decision after all to employ Egyptians or not, but we wanted to explore their reasons for such decision,” he added, explaining that the reason turned out to be political disputes.
However, in 2017, the Qatari Ministry of Interior announced that nationals of countries that cut diplomatic ties with Qatar this week are free to remain in Qatar in line with existing regulations, according to a statement carried by Qatari state news agency (QNA).
“There was no change in policy towards the nationals of brotherly and friendly countries that cut or reduced diplomatic relations following the malicious and hostile campaigns against Qatar,” the Qatari Ministry of Interior added.
The number of Egyptians currently residing in Qatar is about 300,000, according to Egypt’s Minister of Immigration and Egyptian Expats Affairs Nabila Makram’s statements.
Now versus then
The reasons for each wave of tension over the years remained the same: statements of accusations by officials from both sides, Qatar’s support to rivals of the Arab states, and both sides’ state-owned media publications.
While the disputes in the 90s were mainly because Arab states were not approving of the power ruling Qatar, the current disputes are different because it is linked directly to terrorist groups and the Arab spring events, political science professor Hassan Nafaa told Daily News Egypt.
“My analysis is that Qatar wants to be perceived as a strong country in the region, between other strong political powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and it has nothing else to utilise to reach this perception,” Al-Safty said.
Several attempts were made to ease the tensions over the years, often by Saudi parties; however, dissension rises shortly after the mediation.
“Mediation is different now, because in the 90s, Qatari officials were willing to discuss the issues and reach a solution,” Al-Safty said, explaining that several talks were held between both countries to reach a solution in the past.
Currently, countries, including the US and Kuwait, are mediating to end the latest disputes, although Qatar has reportedly announced its refusal of such attempts.