Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt announced on Monday that they were cutting all diplomatic ties with Qatar, ratcheting up tensions in a region that is home to more than 7 million Indian citizens. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE even cut off land, sea and air crossings, meaning airplanes flying out of Doha, the Qatari capital, would have to be diverted over Iran to avoid a complete blockade. The move adds even more volatility to a neighbourhood that is dealing with war in Syria, the spectre of the Islamic State and the uncertainty of an American administration run by President Donald Trump.

Tensions between the countries are not new, though they have been raised to an unprecedented level following the breaking off of diplomatic ties and the travel blockade. Apart from Egypt, all the other nations are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a collection of states on the Arabian peninsula traditionally dominated by Saudi Arabia and all official allies of the United States. The conflict is usually traced to Qatar’s insistence on pursuing an independent foreign policy, including contacts with countries like Iran, which competes with Saudi Arabia for influence in the region.

Fake speech

On May 23, Qatar’s official news agency published a report quoting Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the country’s ruler, saying that Iran was an “Islamic power that cannot be ignored.” The report quoted Al-Thani as claiming that US President Donald Trump had called on the Arab nations to help isolate Iran, an approach the ruler of Qatar reportedly said had “no wisdom” since Iran was a “big power in the stabilisation of the region”.

Al-Thani was also quoted as saying his country’s relations with Israel are good. The interview made waves across West Asia because the Gulf Cooperation Council nations officially look to Saudi Arabia as the dominant power in the Gulf, backed up by the United States and have no official contacts with Israel, because of its occupation of Palestine. The interview was also reported on Qatar TV’s evening news programme.

The following day, however, the Qatar government said its news agency had been hacked and denied the quotes attributed to Al-Thani. According to the government, the hackers even took control of the Qatar News Agency’s Twitter feed, using it to post comments allegedly quoting the country’s foreign minister accusing other Arab nations of being behind a plot to put down Qatar. The tweets were later deleted, and Qatari authorities insisted that they had been targeted by malicious hackers.

Genuine tensions

The allegations of hacking are not without precedent. Last year, hackers released confidential information about thousands of customers at the Qatar National Bank, including details about members of the ruling family. And in 2012, a virus was used to bring down computer systems at Qatar’s natural gas producing company, RasGas, after a similar attack on Saudi Arabia’s national oil company.

But other states in the region nevertheless took the comments as official statements from the Qatari government. Editorials in newspapers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE accused the Qatari royal family of intentionally supporting terrorists and backing Iran at a time when the Arab countries should be united against it. Comments from Jameed Al Dhyabi, a Saudi commentator, give a sense of how the governments in other Gulf Cooperation Council countries saw Qatar’s actions.

“Qatar’s plan is aimed to divide the Arab countries according to the bigger plans of the new Middle East. Doha rushed to win the allegiance of the Bahraini and Saudi opposition, to draw Hamas closer at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, the internationally recognised representative of the Palestinian people, to support separatists in Sudan and to side with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “ 

Eventually, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE all cut off ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism, and they were followed soon after by the military-controlled leadership of Egypt, which has close ties with Saudi.

Independent line

Qatar has argued in the past that these countries are intentionally targeting it, simply because – unlike other Gulf Cooperation Council nations – it is not deferential to the Saudi royal family. Leaked emails have even revealed a concerted campaign to accuse Qatar of supporting militants, even though other nations in the region are no different. Because of Qatar’s huge natural gas reserves, making it the richest per capita nation in the world, the country has been able to operate independent of Saudi Arabia, building relations with Iran – with whom it shares a gas table – and supporting different actors in the various Arab conflicts.

For example, Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring in Egypt, a move that alienated it further from Saudi’s leadership – which has been concerned about the Brotherhood’s actions in their own nation – and eventually came acropper when the Brotherhood government was toppled by the military soon after the revolution. Similar conflicts exist in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. As many point out, it is not Qatar’s support for armed actors that has angered Saudi Arabia. It is the fact that Qatar doesn’t support the same ones as them that has led to the conflict.

Indian citizens?

The developments are particularly important for the Indian government to pay close attention to because of the 7 million Indian citizens that live in the region. Qatar itself, now under some sort of partial blockade, is home to more than 600,000 Indians, and many more live in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The moves will certainly be concerning for this large diaspora, which is also a huge source of remittances for the Indian government.

That said, it is unlikely that any will be in major danger. The moves might make life difficult for the Indians involved in the trucking trade between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but they are unlikely to feature any physical conflict. Both Qatar and Bahrain play host to large American military bases, so any chance of military tensions is likely to immediately bring in the US administration, which acts as a guarantor of safety for all the GCC nations.

The nations all have favourable relations with the Indian government, which has in the past taken efforts to ensure the safety of its citizens at times of conflict, most famously in Iraq during the war, but also as recently as 2015, when the Yemen civil war heated up. The main difference between this standoff and other incidents that have led to tensions between these countries in the past, is the global realignment taking place because of a resurgent Iran and the uncertainty on offer from the Trump administration. Unless the larger powers make efforts to mediate between the Arab states, these tensions may not be going away anytime soon.