Tensions continue between Qatar and a handful of other countries in the region led by Saudi Arabia. Last week, Riyadh cut ties and closed the border with Qatar, imposed restrictions on flights by Qatar Airways, and expulsed Qatari citizens from Saudi. The UAE and Bahrain followed suit, later joined by Egypt and what passes for Yemen these days. Saudi claims that Qatar supports extremist jihadi groups in the region.
As is often the case in the Middle East the conflict is complicated. Qatar, while mainly of Sunni Muslim denomination, has cultivated relations with Iran, Saudi’s regional rival and leader of the Shia Muslim world. But the conflict goes deeper. Qatar is home to Al Jazeera TV, which is seen by Riyadh as a threat to the political and social order in the region, and Qatar, or so Egypt says, has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terrorist group by Cairo. Furthermore, Qatar has contacts with Afghanistan’s Taliban who have an office in Doha.
The Qatari regime, a monarchy with no political freedoms, is thus seen as a promoter of social forces of change – anathema to other governments in the region, and has ties with Iran, which Saudi certainly opposes. The fact that Saudi Arabia (and others in the region) have supported militants from time to time has little relevance for now. At this point Qatar has few friends, although Iran is supplying food and Turkey and Russia have promised some support. Finally, the US president has come out in support of Riyadh, which has likely emboldened the Saudis.
The crisis has obvious relevance for travelers bound for Qatar or those using Qatar Airways, which has had its route network curtailed somewhat. But there is a more sinister dimension also, in that the Gulf Region itself is usually quit and dependable: The autocratic regimes in Saudi, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait are mostly stable and quiet, and keep the oil flowing. At this point Kuwait is trying to mediate, but the rivalry between Saudi and Iran is old and runs deep, and the other Gulf states feel threatened by Qatar’s support for political reform (outside Qatar, of course).
Tensions look set to remain for some time, but conflict appears unlikely. The US support for its ally in Riyadh is unsurprising but its unwavering nature will do little to make the Saudis seek a solution. As the proxywar in Syria grinds on, the region does not need this added tension.
Observer that the land border between Saudi and Qatar is closed. There is a risk that basic supplies of food and even medicine may fall short in Qatar. Make sure your travel insurance and/or health insurance covers injury and loss sustained from unrest, and that you are covered in case evacuation is needed.
Do not take a stance on the issue with locals anywhere in the Middle East & North Africa as the issue may be emotive. If you travel to Qatar be careful what you bring along, especially advanced cameras or other kinds of electronic devices which may cause trouble with the authorities.
If the crisis worsens you should consider leaving the region. Indications of a deterioration could include the arrival of foreign troops in Qatar from e.g. Turkey or Russia (Iranian forces will not be tolerated by Saudi), expulsion from Qatar of Saudi citizens or, obviously, violent unrest or border clashes.