Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar on Wednesday in a rare visible split between the Gulf Arab allies. The falling-out appears to be related to disagreements over Qatar’s stance on the political turmoil shaking much of the Middle East.
Qatar's cabinet voiced "regret and surprise" at the decision by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counterparts but said Doha would not pull out its own envoys in response and that it remained committed to "the security and stability" of the GCC.
According to a report published by Saudi state media on Wednesday, the decision to withdraw diplomatic envoys was made because Qatar did not implement a security pact about non-interference in the internal affairs of the other states that make up GCC.
The move escalated an internal power struggle over foreign policy in the GCC, which also includes Kuwait and Oman, and represents a significant challenge for Qatar's young ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani less than a year after he took power.
A pro-Western alliance of absolute monarchies, the GCC was set up in the 1980s as a counterweight to Iranian influence in the Gulf, and includes several of the world's biggest oil and gas producers and exporters.
Saudi Arabia, the biggest GCC state by population, size and economy, has grown increasingly frustrated over recent years at the efforts of Qatar, a country of just 2 million, to leverage its large wealth from gas exports into regional clout.
The statement follows two years of efforts by Saudi Arabia to build a closer union between the GCC countries on foreign and security policy in an effort to cement a united front against what it sees as Iranian aggression.
However, Gulf analysts and diplomats say it is too early to cast doubts on the ability of the GCC to hold together, pointing towards previous disagreements between member states that were later settled. Many GCC members have decades-old border disputes with each other, but efforts to resolve them are normally pursued without any apparent acrimony.
Qatar has been out of step with other countries in the region, showing support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a move viewed with suspicion or outright hostility by some fellow GCC members.
Al Thani, in his early 30s, said when he succeeded his father in June 2013 that Qatar would not "take direction" in foreign affairs, suggesting he would continue Doha's assertive, independent-minded foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fuming especially over Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement whose political ideology challenges the principle of dynastic rule, and by its playing host to its spiritual leader Yusuf Qaradawi.
Saudi and other Gulf Arab officials, as well as leaders of the military-backed government in Egypt, have voiced complaints about Qatari-owned Al Jazeera, which they see as being openly supportive of the Brotherhood and critical of their governments.
Al Jazeera and wire services