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Qatar: Out in the cold

The GCC faces an unprecedented crisis as three member states politically and economically ostracise Doha

It doesn't get much worse than this. What began as a media war of words has escalated into the most serious diplomatic spat the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has witnessed since its creation in 1981.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have not only cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, but they've also shut down all transport links with it and banned their citizens from going there. These are the harshest measures that can be imposed on a neighbouring country—short of military intervention.

The anti-Qatar move is being led by Saudi Arabia which has long accused the Doha leadership of wrecking Gulf unity by backing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, and maintaining close links with Iran. It has also frequently denounced the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station, accusing it of promoting causes that run counter to GCC interests in the region.

Justifying the ostracising of Qatar, the Saudi state news agency said the move was intended to "protect national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism". Qatar's isolation also means that it's been kicked out of the Saudi-led Arab alliance fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Shia insurgents are seen by most GCC states as agents of Iran. Qatar is being accused of supporting the Houthis.

Qatar says it regrets that fellow GCC states have seen fit to take this action, adding that the allegations are unfounded.

This isn't the first time that Qatar has been targeted by other GCC members because of its regional policies. A dispute in 2014 ended with an agreement signed in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, after mediation by Kuwait, also a GCC state. Significantly, two member countries, Kuwait and Oman, have declined thus far to follow the Saudi-Bahraini-Emirati lead in breaking diplomatic ties with Qatar. It's possible, therefore, that one or both states will seek to bring the two sides together.

But mediation this time around will be more difficult. Saudi Arabia and its closest GCC allies are particularly angered by statements attributed to the emir of Qatar shortly after Gulf leaders met President Donald Trump in Riyadh. At that meeting there appeared to be unanimity in condemning Iran. Yet Qatar's leader subsequently said that Iran was an influential power in the region and should be respected as such.

While the authenticity of the emir's remarks is disputed, the whole affair has brought back to the surface major strains within the GCC. This time, Saudi Arabia is determined that Qatar be taught a lesson and make the necessary policy changes to enable it to re-join Gulf ranks. Closing the borders to land traffic and neighbouring airspace to Qatari planes will make life difficult for a state that relies on imports for food and all consumer goods. Being put in isolation will hurt Qatar-and that's the intention.

It's hard to see how Qatar can hold out if those acting against it keep up the pressure. In the end, a face-saving way out will probably be found. But in the meantime, the GCC's citizens can only sit and watch as this extremely embarrassing and unseemly row undermines the only functioning regional organisation in the fractured Arab world.

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