(Corrects first paragraph to reflect Egypt not a Gulf state)
* Dawn phone call first sign of crisis
* Qatari Emir's speech allegedly hacked
* Saudis lose patience with their neighbour
By William Maclean and Stephen Kalin
DUBAI, June 7 One of the first signs of the
crisis in which three Gulf states and Egypt have cut ties with
Qatar came in a phone call from an anxious government adviser to
a Reuters journalist early on May 24.
In the 6.00 a.m. call, he denied Qatar's emir made comments
reported by the state-run news agency criticising hostility to
Iran, sympathising with three Islamist groups, accusing Saudi
Arabia of adopting an extremist ideology that fosters terrorism
and suggesting Donald Trump may not last long as U.S. president.
The adviser repeated a statement released hours earlier
which said the news agency had been hacked, seeming unaware that
Reuters had already reported the denial.
The unusual timing of the call and the adviser's haste to
get the message across pointed to Qatar's deep concern about the
impact the remarks attributed to the emir could have.
As anger mounted in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab
Emirates, Qatar's foreign minister tried to limit the fallout.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told a news
conference that Qatar, host to the biggest U.S. military base in
the Middle East, wanted to maintain brotherly ties with its
powerful neighbours in a region critical to world energy
To outside observers, it was unclear whether the Qatar News
Agency had indeed been hacked or whether an editor had published
remarks which the emir later regretted saying.
But to Qatar's neighbours the question was irrelevant: the
comments reflected the broad lines of Qatar's independent-minded
foreign policy, which critics say has destabilised the region
through its alliance with Islamist armed groups and cordial ties
Officials in the Gulf say the comments marked a turning
point, prompting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United
Arab Emirates to cut relations with Qatar in the biggest
diplomatic shock in the region for years.
For Riyadh, trouble was also evident elsewhere.
Some Qatari-funded anti-Saudi websites had begun reporting
on what they said were calls for protests against the kingdom's
rulers, stirring memories of the Arab Spring revolutions that
toppled the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
"They (Qataris) hired (financed) influential Saudi
preachers, religious figures, journalists and academics to
incite against Saudi Arabia," one Gulf source told Reuters. "The
Saudis had had it with Qatar. The Qataris keep channels open
with Iran in various capitals and they campaign against the
The Saudis had reached a "dead end" with Qatar and decided
for the first time in 20 years to take action to damage its
neighbour's interests, the source added.
Qatar denies inciting unrest in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.
Another factor that pushed the four Sunni states over the
line, according to Gulf officials, was last month's visit to
Saudi Arabia by Trump, who has reversed the policies of
predecessor Barack Obama, thrown his weight behind the kingdom
and its allies and expressed misgivings about Iran.
No sooner had Trump left Riyadh than the United States'
partners in the region moved against Qatar and its young emir,
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, another American ally.
A series of flashpoints across the region in the days
following Trump's visit heightened tensions that had been
building for months and removed any hope among Qatar's
neighbours of peeling it away from Iran and the Islamist groups
it has engaged with for years.
Those tensions spilled into the public arena less than 48
hours after the Qatari emir took part in the Riyadh summit
attended by Trump which was meant to showcase U.S. support for
solidarity of Sunni Muslim nations.
The alleged hacking incident came days after Qatar
complained it was the target of "an orchestrated barrage" of
criticism by unknown parties, in the run-up to Trump's visit.
"After the Tamim speech, things went up an extra notch," a
source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
"The catalogue is so wide... It is an accumulation," Anwar
Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs told Reuters.
"It could have happened in March, it could have happened in
December. But it was bound to happen. It was something that was
ready to explode."
Gargash confirmed there were several major irritants that
sped up the process. These included the comments attributed to
the emir, UAE accusations that Qatar has undermined the
Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and Qatar's handling of a hostage
crisis involving 24 members of the ruling elite in which it paid
ransom money to Islamist groups in Iraq an Syria.
An annual phone call to mark the start of the holy Islamic
month of Ramadan between Tamim and Iranian President Hassan
Rouhani on May 27 aggravated the situation further. Iran's
Shi'ite-led government and Saudi Arabia's Sunni rulers compete
for influence in the region and Jean-Marc Rickli, a Geneva-based
risk analyst, called that a "diplomatic mistake (which) Saudi
Arabia and the UAE jumped on".
Kuwait's emir offered to mediate but when Tamim attended an
iftar (fast-breaking) Ramadan meal with him on May 30, Tamim
left early, apparently unwilling to discuss the row, a Kuwaiti
newspaper editor regularly briefed by officials told Reuters.
The decision to cut ties with Qatar took shape in a rolling
series of meetings over several weeks, said a Gulf Arab source.
But a second source said an important moment came last
Saturday when Saudi King Salman and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed
al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, met for iftar in Jeddah.
It is likely that Egypt came on board two days later, during a
visit to Cairo by the Saudi foreign minister.
At dawn on Monday, those governments and Bahrain made a
series of rapid fire announcements, revealing the move's careful
orchestration and pre-planning.
A Western diplomat in Doha said the move was "clearly tied"
to Trump's visit, suggesting it had emboldened Saudi Arabia and
the UAE to act.
"The opportunity presented itself with the Trump visit and
Trump's presidency in general," a former U.S. ambassador to Doha
told Reuters, suggesting the move had been in the works for two
or three months.
"This is well choreographed. Everything came together at the
U.S. officials were blindsided by Saudi Arabia’s decision to
sever ties with Qatar, current and former U.S. officials told
A senior administration official said Washington had no
indication at the Riyadh summit that the move was about to
happen but on Tuesday morning Trump directly waded into the
dispute by praising the Arab powers’ decisions against Qatar.
The Pentagon, mindful of the U.S. military base in Qatar,
renewed its praise for Doha after Trump’s intervention --
showing again how U.S. officials are walking a tightrope as
Trump’s tweets raise questions about existing policy and the
scripted talking points used to explain it.
Reports that Qatari officials paid hundreds of millions of
dollars to Iran-backed groups in an April deal to free 26 of its
citizens kidnapped in Iraq last year has also been an irritant
in relations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Qatar denies trying to pay ransom money to secure the
release of the hostages, although foreign minister al-Thani said
it sent money "to support the authorities in the release of
(Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul, John Walcott, Sylvia
Westall, Editing by Giles Elgood and Timothy Heritage)