The countries said they planned to break off all land, air and sea traffic with Qatar, and eject its diplomats from their territories. Qatar was also expelled from a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
Yemen’s internationally backed government, which no longer holds its capital and large portions of the country, also cut relations with Qatar, as did the government based in eastern Libya.
The coordinated move dramatically escalates a dispute over Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamist movement, and adds accusations that Doha even backs the agenda of regional arch-rival Iran.
Saudi Arabia said it took the decision to cut diplomatic ties due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region”, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, Islamic State and groups supported by Iran in the kingdom’s restive eastern province of Qatif. Egypt’s foreign ministry accused Qatar of taking an “antagonist approach” toward Egypt and said “all attempts to stop it from supporting terrorist groups failed”.
The tiny island nation of Bahrain blamed Qatar’s “media incitement, support for armed terrorist activities and funding linked to Iranian groups to carry out sabotage and spreading chaos in Bahrain” for its decision.
Qatar’s foreign affairs ministry said the measures were unjustified and based on false claims and assumptions. “The State of Qatar has been subjected to a campaign of lies that have reached the point of complete fabrication,” a statement said. “It reveals a hidden plan to undermine the State of Qatar.”
The escalation of a long-simmering row had an immediate effect on air travel in the region: Qatar Airways, one of the region’s major long-haul carriers, said it was suspending all flights to Saudi Arabia; Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier, said it would suspend flights to Qatar “until further notice”; Emirates, the Dubai-based carrier, announced it would suspend Qatar flights starting on Tuesday; and Dubai-based budget carrier flydubai said it would suspend flights to and from Doha from Tuesday.
In late May Qatar alleged that hackers took over the site of its state-run news agency and published what it called fake comments from its ruling emir about Iran and Israel. Qatar’s Gulf Arab neighbours responded with anger, blocking Qatari-based media, including the Doha-based satellite news network Al-Jazeera.
A senior Iranian official said the decision to sever ties with Qatar would not help end the crisis in the Middle East. Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, tweeted: “The era of cutting diplomatic ties and closing borders is over … it is not a way to resolve crisis. These countries have no other option but to start regional dialogue.”
Qatar is home to the sprawling al-Udeid airbase, which houses the US military’s central command and 10,000 American troops. It was not clear if the decision would affect US military operations. Central command officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Qatar has long faced criticism from its Arab neighbours over its support of Islamists. The chief worry among them is the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist political group outlawed by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE as it challenges the nations’ hereditary rule.
Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia fell out with Qatar over its backing of then-Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar over the rift.
Eight months later, they returned their ambassadors as Qatar forced some Brotherhood members to leave the country and quieted others. However, the 2014 crisis did not see a land and sea blockade as threatened now.
In the time since, Qatar repeatedly and strongly denied it funds extremist groups. However, it remains a key financial patron of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and has been the home of exiled Hamas official Khaled Mashaal since 2012.
Western officials also have accused Qatar of allowing or even encouraging funding of Sunni extremists like al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.
The row comes only two weeks after Donald Trump visited the Middle East to seal major defence contracts with Saudi Arabia worth $110bn, set up an anti-extremist institute in Riyadh and urge the Gulf states to build an alliance against Iran.
Although it is unlikely Saudi Arabia would have instigated this action against Qatar without first informing the US, it is possible that Trump did not give the green light to such drastic steps.
The Saudis are in part countering the allegation of funding extremism, frequently made in Washington and in the past by Trump himself, by pointing the finger at Qatar for funding terrorism.
Speaking in Australia, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, played down the seriousness of the diplomatic dispute, and said it would not affect counter-terrorism efforts.
“I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of irritants in the region that have been there for some time, and they’ve bubbled up so that countries have taken action in order to have those differences addressed,” he said.
Tillerson said regional efforts to counter the threat of terrorism would be undiminished.
“I do not expect that this will have any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified – the united – fight against terrorism in the region or globally. All of those parties you mentioned have been quite unified in the fight against terrorism and the fight against Daesh, Isis, and have expressed that most recently in the summit in Riyadh.”