Doha, Qatar - The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had not fully recovered from last November's disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Oman when it was hit by a deeper rift involving Qatar.
The latest diplomatic spat pits Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain against Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group labeled a "terrorist organisation" by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
On March 5, the trio announced the withdrawal of their ambassadors from Qatar, accusing it of breaching the organisation's security agreement and violating its principles of "unified destiny", according to a joint statement issued by the official Saudi news agency.
They also accused Qatar of failing to commit to promises it had made to not interfere in the internal affairs of its fellow GCC states, not to support organisations and individuals jeopardising their security and stability, and not to harbour "hostile media", referring to Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network.
On Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was quoted as saying that the diplomatic crisis will persist "as long as Doha does not revise its policy".
"This is by far the biggest crisis we've encountered as a council," said a Kuwaiti official who asked not to be named.
Strained ties between Saudi Arabia and Qatar date back to 1992 when border clashes left two dead, and in 2002, the kingdom withdrew its ambassador to Doha over content aired on Al Jazeera. It took several years for relations to improve, but the air never fully cleared.
With the exception of Bahrain, the GCC states - whose members together hold about a third of the world's oil reserves and currently provide about 20 percent of its supply - largely avoided the "Arab Spring" protests that swept across the region in 2011. But the revolts caused the split between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to widen as they took different sides in the upheaval.
"The GCC as we know it may be headed for irreversible change, and the bulk of the ideas of a GCC union may be thrown on the ash heap of history," said Dubai-based Theodore Karasik, the director of research and consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
|Qatar calls Saudi, UAE, Bahrain withdrawal a 'big mistake'|
The council, formed in 1981 to counter the threat of the new revolutionary Shia republic in Iran, was considering a Saudi proposal, tabled in 2011, to transform the GCC into a closer union, as dictatorships around the Middle East were facing protests. But like many of the council's plans, this one failed to garner consensus. Normally quiet Oman refused to go along with the Saudi proposal, preferring to maintain good ties with nearby Iran. Kuwait declined too, due to constitutional restrictions.
"Strategic relations appear to be spiralling downwards," Karasik said, adding that Doha is "running the risk of being shoved outside of the GCC if there are not signs of dropping support for the Muslim Brotherhood across the region". The Brotherhood, whose rise across the region was facilitated by protests against decades-old regimes, has been supported by Qatar amid Saudi Arabia's efforts to contain the group.
The countries' clashing stances have been most visible in Egypt and Syria. After Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup last July, Egypt declared the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belonged, to be a "terrorist organisation" and withdrew its ambassador from Qatar. Qatar had been Morsi's biggest supporter during his one-year tenure, offering loans and aid worth $8bn.
Following Morsi's ousting, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE together provided Egypt with credit lines and aid worth up to $12bn, while Qatar hosted Morsi supporters targeted by a months-long security campaign. Doha is also the home of cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a guiding figure for the Brotherhood, who has enraged other GCC states by attacking their support for post-Morsi Egypt.
In Syria, fragmentation among the opposition, which is trapped in a deadly war against Bashar al-Assad's regime, has been exacerbated by the Saudi-Qatar rivalry.
"I think that Egypt's move not to send an ambassador to Qatar illustrates that the trend of isolating Qatar will spread. On the other hand, Qatar will find supporters in Turkey and other Middle East states," Karasik explained. "Perhaps we are witnessing a 'Cold War'-type division between the Gulf states spreading throughout the region. This 'us-versus-them' mentality adds an extra danger to the future of the MENA region."
Since news of the diplomatic stalemate broke, reports have emerged that Saudi Arabia may escalate the situation to force Qatar to change its policies by cutting off Qatar's only land border, imposing sanctions and closing Saudi airspace to Qatari planes.
Qatar is the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and has strong trade ties with the Far East and the US. These commercial links can buffer much of the damage potentially caused by such a blockade, but Qatar's massive dependence on food from Saudi Arabia and the UAE leaves it vulnerable.
|Saudis, UAE, Bahrain withdraw envoys from Qatar|
Joseph Kechichian, senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, said such reports of blockades "are not logical", adding that "like every rift, this one will be resolved too, though it may take some time". He expected Qatar "to find no choice but to back down, and abandon the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists groups like Syria's al-Nusra Front, to enhance its own interest. What is unknown is the timing."
So far, Qatar and its 33-year-old emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, who took over from his father last year to become the youngest ruler in the GCC, have not shown any indication of wavering. "The independence of Qatar's foreign policy is simply non-negotiable," Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said during a visit to Paris last week.
Voicing the same stance, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifah, Qatar's former ambassador to the United Nations and the US, said his country will not falter. "The GCC will not fall apart, but there are no midpoints to be reached. What is being asked of Qatar is unacceptable, and violates its sovereignty and independence. Other members will have to grow tolerant towards differences," he said.
The future of the bloc now hinges on mediation efforts led by Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah. The Gulf deadlock will likely top the agenda of the two-day Arab League summit, hosted by Kuwait starting March 25, either directly or indirectly, as it also discusses Egypt and Syria.
Analysts expect Western players, including the US, to try to bridge the gap. The US is a close ally of all six GCC monarchies, and has a large military base, al-Udeid, in Qatar. But there is little hope that mediation will bring about much of a change. "It is clear that both sides are set in their current positions, and I expect relations to worsen," Karasik said.
Kechichian said he does not see this as the beginning of the GCC falling apart, "but it will delay the proposed union by a decade or two".
Khaled al-Dakhail, a Saudi assistant professor of political sociology, wrote in his column in Saudi-owned newspaper al-Hayat on March 9, that unless Qatar's approach changes, "the decision to withdraw the ambassadors will not be the sole decision, and will be followed by measures that are larger in magnitude".
Follow Dahlia Kholaif on Twitter: @Dee_Kholaif