The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain said on Wednesday they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar because Doha had not implemented an agreement among Gulf Arab countries not to interfere in each others' internal affairs.
Qatar said it will not withdraw its envoys from UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain despite differences in matters which it said were "external to the GCC".
The move by the three countries, conveyed in a joint statement, is unprecedented in the three-decade history of the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Oman.
Qatar has been a maverick in the region, backing Islamist groups in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East that are viewed with suspicion or outright hostility by some fellow GCC members.
The statement said GCC members had signed an agreement on November 23 not to back "anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals - via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media".
GCC foreign ministers had met in Riyadh on Tuesday to try to persuade Qatar to implement the agreement, it said. Media reports described the meeting as “stormy”.
"But unfortunately, these efforts did not result in Qatar's agreement to abide by these measures, which prompted the three countries to start what they saw as necessary, to protect their security and stability, by withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar starting from today, March 5 2013," the statement said.
GCC countries "have exerted massive efforts to contact Qatar on all levels to agree on a unified policy... to ensure non-interference, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of any member state," the statement said.
The nations have also asked Qatar "not to support any party aiming to threaten security and stability of any GCC member," it added, citing media campaigns against them in particular.
The statement stressed that despite the commitment of Qatar's emir Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani to these principles in November, his country has failed to comply.
Media reports have said that Shaikh Tamim was given an ultimatum by Saudi Arabia in the November meeting in Riyadh that was facilitated by the Kuwaiti emir, Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmed. The new emir was told to change Qatar’s ways and bring the country in line with the rest of the GCC with regards to regional issues. The GCC has in particular been concerned about Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its close relations with Turkey, its opposition to the new regime in Egypt and its perceived support for Al Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Shaikh Tamim reportedly signed a pledge to comply and asked for a six month period to reorient his country, citing obstacles from remnants of the previous regime that was led by his father Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa in which the controversial prime minister and foreign minister Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani wielded enormous influence. Kuwait’s efforts to resolve the two countries’ differences stemmed from its reported desire to avoid a confrontation between the two sides in the GCC summit it was expected to hold the subsequent month. Shaikh Tamim was reportedly warned that relations with GCC states would deteriorate significantly if Qatar would not change its ways.
Relations between Qatar and the UAE have been rocky lately. A top UAE court on Monday sentenced Qatari national Mahmoud Al Jidah to seven years in prison followed by deportation after he was convicted with two Emiratis of raising funds for a banned local Muslim Brotherhood-linked group, Al Islah. The move was criticised by Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, which is close to the government.
The rights body said it will pursue Al Jidah’s release, with its head Ali Bin Sumaikh Al Marri saying that the Abu Dhabi Federal Supreme Court “failed to implement international standards of a fair trial”. He also alleged that Al Jidah’s confessions were extracted “under torture”.
Early in February, in a rare move for Gulf countries, the UAE announced that it had summoned Qatar’s ambassador in Abu Dhabi for remarks made by controversial Egyptian-Qatari cleric Yousef Al Qaradawi. Dr Anwar Mohammad Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, expressed the UAE Government’s “extreme resentment” over Al Qaradawi’s statement. Speaking live on Qatari state TV from a Doha mosque, Al Qaradawi criticised the UAE for supporting the current Egyptian government. He claimed that the UAE “has always been opposed to Islamic rule”.
“We have held back so that our neighbour can clearly reject such insult, extend sufficient clarifications and guarantee that such provocation and defamation will not recur,” Gargash said then.
But Gen Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahayan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, at the time insisted that UAE-Qatar relations remain strong despite the spat.
Qatar was a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood led government of Mohammad Mursi that was ousted in July in a military coup led by army chief Abdul Fattah Al Sisi.
The Qatari government has also raised its neighbours’ ire for failing to end its relations with the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which has been deeply involved the civil war in Syria, siding with the regime of Bashar Al Assad. Early last December, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he had received an envoy from Qatar, the first contact between the two sides since divisions over the crisis in Syria severed their once strong relations.
Qatar, which used to enjoy close relations with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey and Bashar Al Assad’s Syria, has in recent years found itself isolated after relations with Hezbollah, Iran and Al Assad deteriorated. The GCC’s decision is expected to further isolate the new emir.