Qatar Emir Thani
Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar has a personal wealth estimated at $2.4 billion. REUTERS

In an unprecedented step, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors from Qatar Wednesday, asserting that the tiny oil-rich nation of 2 million people threatens the “stability and security” of the region and raising questions about the viability of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (aka Gulf Cooperation Council), which counts all four countries as members.

There is some confusion and disagreement over the real reasons behind this surprising development. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE stated that Qatar had failed to abide by the terms of a joint security agreement signed in Riyadh last November, which called for all GCC members to avoid “meddling in regional affairs, or backing of any party that threatens regional security and stability.” That is believed to refer to Qatar’s support of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, not only in Egypt, but also across the Middle East.

The Riyadh agreement also asserted that no member of the GCC should support any “hostile” media outlets – a direct reference to Al Jazeera, the Doha, Qatar-based broadcast network that has largely supported the Arab Spring revolutions and generally embraced the Brotherhood across the region, much to the consternation of conservative monarchies like the House of Saud.

A joint statement by the three monarchies added, however, that they are not completely cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar. “We … are keen on protecting the interests of the GCC countries and peoples, including the people of Qatar,” they stated. “We still hope that Qatar will quickly take the necessary steps to respond and honor the earlier [Riyadh] agreement for the sake of protecting the progress of GCC countries from any damage.”

But Arab News reported that Qatar has responded that its neighbors' withdrawal of their envoys stemmed from a dispute over events occurring “outside the Gulf states,” and not anything to do with security issues. “The State of Qatar has been and will always remain committed to the principles of brotherhood that bind the brethren in the [GCC],” the Qatari Council of Ministers said in in a statement, according to the Qatar News Agency, adding that Qatar will not retaliate by calling back its own ambassadors from the three other nations.

Tensions between Qatar and other GCC members have festered for years, said Dr. Dilshod Achilov, assistant professor of political science at East Tennessee State University and an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. “This is yet another move to isolate and punish Qatar for its recent actions that stem from its unorthodox political vision and which does not align with the grand geopolitical, strategic and economic ambitions of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain,” he said.

Achilov cited three major factors behind this rupture: Firstly, Qatar has long supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is despised by Saudi Arabia and UAE, as such movements pose a grave threat to their absolute monarchies. “Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain view moderate Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as a major threat that can quickly diffuse in the region and change the political discourse that can potently challenge their thrones down the road,” Achilov stated. “When the Egyptian military staged the coup in 2013 and ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi, Qatar stood by the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas Saudi Arabia and UAE rushed to pledge billions of aid funds to support the military.”

Nasser bin Hamad M. al-Khalifa, a former Qatari ambassador to the U.S., told Al Jazeera that the other three Gulf states are punishing Doha specifically for refusing to join in their plan to help Egyptian Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi overthrow Morsi. “The whole issue is really about Sisi,” al-Khalifa said. “These countries are supporting a coup d’état. … They want Qatar to support such a policy. … We will never support another regime that kills its own people.” Al-Khalifa added that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were unnerved by the Arab Spring turmoil of 2011 and want to rewind the clock. “They want to keep the Arab world in the hole, they want them to stay weak countries controlled by dictators [but] we are not going to support dictators,” he added.

Second, Qatar has pursued a foreign policy independent from "big brother” Saudi Arabia, which are also at odds with the U.S., UAE and Bahrain. “In this context, Qatar does not share the same geopolitical, strategic and economic ambitions,” Achilov noted. “Recently, Qatar and Turkey have emerged as an effective political and strategic duo in the region – a move that further irritated Saudi Arabia and UAE.”

Third, of course, is Al Jazeera, which occupies a central role in this rift. “Highly popular, independent and fairly open news media in the Middle East-- Aljazeera Arabic and Aljazeera English – headquartered in Doha, does not shy away from criticizing the Gulf States,” Achilov commented. “Qatar’s politically progressive moves (in relative terms to its neighbors) continue to widen the rift between traditional monarchies in the Gulf. This tension creates problems for viable GCC unification. And Qatar's stance is also a reaction to Saudi's self-embraced leadership role in the Gulf.”

Robert Powell, the Middle East & North Africa analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, noted that Al-Jazeera also broadcasts a program hosted by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamic scholar who is thought to be sympathetic to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and has been extremely critical of the leadership of the UAE. “Clearly the failure of Al-Jazeera (and Qatar) to rein in this particularly controversial cleric was a cause of considerable consternation in several GCC capitals,” Powell said.

Riyadh, the New York Times noted, has also long resented how Qatar – about one-tenth the size of Saudi Arabia in terms of population and one-fourth of its GDP – has tried to exert influence in the Middle East on a scale far beyond its size and perceived importance. Indeed, Qatari officials have in recent years shipped arms to rebels in Syria and Libya, negotiated a peace deal in Lebanon, supported Palestinian militants in Gaza, and provided a haven for leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (all while hosting a U.S. military base on their soil, the Al Udeid Air Base). “The other Gulf states see Qatar as this extremely rich child that has got all this money and all these big toys and wants to play but doesn’t know how to do it,” Michael Stephens, a researcher for the London-based Royal United Services Institute in Doha, told the New York Times.

The withdrawal of an ambassador in the Gulf has already occurred before -- in 2002, Saudi Arabia recalled its envoy to Qatar as a protest against Al Jazeera, which broadcast explicit criticisms of the kingdom and its founder, Ibn Saud. It would be another five years before the Saudis restored their ambassador in Doha.

Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, said Qatar and the other three GCC members also differ over their stance on Syria. Although all four are adamantly opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and support the rebels, the Qataris have favored the more radical, militant members of the Syrian opposition, which particularly makes the Saudis queasy. Moreover, the Qataris do not view the regional Shi'a giant, Iran, as quite the grave threat that the Saudis do, Heras added.

Powell also warned that the falling out within the GCC could potentially have negative ramifications regarding Syria. “Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been providing funds and weapons to the Syrian opposition, albeit usually to differing groups,” he noted. “Nonetheless, there was probably sufficient common ground to allow both countries to work together in their efforts to oust Bashar al-Assad -- such co-operation is, however, probably another casualty of this intra-GCC spat.”

The GCC has two other members, Kuwait and Oman, which thus far have remained on the sidelines on this issue. “Kuwait and Oman have generally served as mediators in disputes that have arisen,” Heras noted.

With respect to the impact on the GCC, Powell commented that the Saudi Arabia's mooted "GCC Union" (modeled to an extent on the European Union) is now “unquestionably dead.” “Equally, Qatar was still signed up for the long-delayed GCC single currency, but it is difficult to see it remaining on board now,” Powell stated.