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BEIRUT -- The Persian Gulf this month has been gripped by a crisis involving Qatar and several other countries that could see thousands of people forced to move and start new lives.

Ongoing tension in the region escalated to crisis June 5 when a coalition of Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council announced a coordinated diplomatic break with Qatar, a small nation with big clout thanks to its wealth of oil and natural gas.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, plus nonmember Egypt, accused Qatar of harboring, funding and championing Islamist terrorists, in part through the Doha-based satellite news channel Al-Jazeera.

The countries cut air, sea and land links with Qatar. Several ordered Qataris in their countries to return home, and their citizens to leave the country within two weeks.

Although Persian Gulf countries have staged blockades of Qatar before and scored concessions, some analysts said the situation had not been quite like this.

"This is a major crisis. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain will not back down this time. The stakes are high because it can undermine what the [Gulf Cooperation Council] has achieved since its inception" in 1981, said Omar Mohamed, a strategic analyst with the government of Bahrain based in Manama, the capital.

Kuwait, a council member, and other nations are trying to mediate.

Qatar denies the accusations regarding Islamist extremists, calling them unjustified. It also emphasizes the importance of maintaining its sovereignty.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani decried the blockade last week but said his country was open to a diplomatic solution.

"Qatar is willing to sit and negotiate about whatever is related to Gulf security," he said during a briefing in Paris after diplomatic meetings Monday. He said Qatar supports Kuwait's efforts to mediate the crisis but warned that Qatar's foreign policy would not be open to negotiation.

The foreign and economic ministers of Qatar are members of the royal family under the emir's absolute monarchy. Qatar is the size of Connecticut, with a population of 2.6 million, only about 300,000 of them Qatari citizens.

It's oil- and gas-rich, and its leaders have managed to defy larger Arab neighbors in recent years in part by leveraging that wealth and ties with another neighbor, Iran, and the United States -- 10,000 U.S. troops are based at Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha.

Arab countries had initially dominated the Qatari monarchy after its independence in 1971. Then Qatari Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized power in a 1995 coup and began to reshape his country's influence through strategic alliances with Iran, trade relations with Israel and construction of the U.S. air base.

Qatar's leaders sought to capitalize on the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, partnering with Turkey to back anti-government forces in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Saudi Arabia and its allies saw the uprisings as a threat and backed the governments.

The United Arab Emirates has urged Saudi leaders to be more proactive in confronting Qatar, said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The blockade gives the Saudis an opportunity to demonstrate their strength at a time when they are trying to position themselves as the leader of an Islamic military alliance, battling Houthi rebels in Yemen and Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, analysts said.

"The Saudis and Emiratis have to get their own house in order first before they create the larger alliance, the 'Arab NATO,'" said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based think tank. "Qatar has to be brought around, put out of business or absorbed."

The deadline for Qatari citizens to return and foreigners to depart is looming days before the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Qatar's National Human Rights Committee released a report last week alleging at least 764 human-rights violations since the blockade began, including restrictions of freedom of expression and movement that left families divided, students sent home from school, laborers without jobs and business interrupted.

President Donald Trump initially praised the Qatar blockade on Twitter as the sort of strike against terrorism supporters he had urged during his visit last month to Riyadh. But the administration has since opposed the blockade.

Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that Russia could take advantage of the Persian Gulf split, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Arab nations to end the blockade for humanitarian and military reasons as they continue to battle the Islamic State. On Thursday, Tillerson called Oman's foreign minister, who stressed the importance of supporting Kuwait's efforts to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, according to a ministry statement on Omani state TV.

Qatar's refusal to capitulate could delay Saudi Arabia's regional plans, particularly if Qatar allies such as Turkey step in to broker an agreement.

A Section on 06/18/2017

Print Headline: Qatar standoff seen as pivotal in bid for Persian Gulf clout

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