DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar on Wednesday in an unusually public dispute among the clubby Western-allied Gulf Arab states, a move analysts say centers on their neighbor's support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its perceived aggressive meddling in regional conflicts.
The three Gulf Arab states said Qatar failed to uphold its end of a security agreement to stop interfering in other nations' politics and supporting organizations that threaten the Gulf's stability. They said the move was made to protect their security. The decision comes ahead of Egypt's critical April presidential election.
In a last ditch effort, foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council met Tuesday in Riyadh to try and "persuade" Qatar to keep up its end of a largely opaque deal struck in November, a statement from the three countries read.
"However, all these efforts have not resulted ... in the consent of the state of Qatar to adhere to these procedures," the statement said. "So the three countries have to start doing whatever they deem appropriate to protect their security and stability by withdrawing their ambassadors."
It was an unprecedented move for the countries of the six-nation council, which sit atop some of the world's largest oil and gas reserves.
Qatar expressed "regret and surprise" at the move and said it remains committed to the values of the GCC, according to excerpts of a Cabinet statement carried by the official Qatar News Agency.
The Cabinet said Qatar will not respond by recalling its own ambassadors. Qatar's stock market fell more than 2 percent following the announcement, losing around $383 million.
The joint Gulf statement said Qatar's ruler, Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, failed to uphold the security agreement that he signed in late November in Saudi Arabia. It said the emir of Kuwait witnessed the meeting in Riyadh and other council members endorsed the agreement.
Kuwait, which has Islamists in parliament, and Oman were the only countries in the council not to join in the diplomatic protest. Kuwait's parliament speaker, Marzouq al-Ghanim, told local media he hoped that Kuwait's emir would play a role in healing the divisions "as soon as possible."
The agreement had called on all council members not to interfere, "whether directly or indirectly" in another member nation's internal affairs. It also stipulated that countries would not support organizations, individuals or "hostile media" that threaten the security and stability of member countries "either through direct security work or by attempting to influence politics."
The language appeared to have been shorthand for Qatar's funding of the Al-Jazeera news network and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi analyst Anwar Edshki said the joint statement is a warning to Qatar to stop inciting violence by Islamists in Egypt.
"It is Qatar's right to support the Muslim Brotherhood, but not its right to threaten security in Egypt and incite the (people on the) street," said Edshki, who chairs the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
He said Islamist cleric Youssef el-Qaradawi's sermons on Qatari TV, in which he criticizes the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, were seen as an attack on their sovereignty. The UAE summoned the Qatari ambassador last month to protest Doha's silence on the matter. The Egyptian-born cleric has close ties with the Brotherhood.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bader Abdel Attie said in a statement that the decision sends the same message Cairo sent when it recalled its ambassador to Qatar last month.
Qatar's activist role over the years also has irked its neighbors. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with combined local populations of more than 100 million people, see the tiny nation of Qatar, with a native population of less than a quarter million, as trying to wield influence far greater than its size, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University.
Well before the Arab Spring, Qatar launched Al-Jazeera, which largely reflects Doha's worldview and has irritated governments around the region for its reporting. Journalists and employees of Al-Jazeera are among 20 defendants being tried in Egypt on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization for their coverage of the Brotherhood — charges they deny.
Qatar also pushed itself into the international arena when it played host to peace talks over distant conflicts like those between Afghanistan's government and the Taliban.
"It's 15 years of Qatar playing the role of supporting forces of change in the region. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are status quo powers in the region, and they were annoyed," Abdulla said.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar use their vast wealth to influence regional politics from Yemen to Libya. However, their money has often flowed to different hands.
In Syria, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have pushed for President Bashar Assad's ouster. But Qatar has vied for influence through support to the exiled Syrian Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia through other figures in the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. This has led to public disputes, hurting the coalition's image and ability to unite.
In Egypt, Qatar gave billions of dollars in aid to the Brotherhood-backed government of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi before he was ousted by the army last year. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait trumped that support with billions of dollars to Egypt's new military-backed government as it cracked down on the Brotherhood and its supporters.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia, however, have little tolerance for Brotherhood-linked activity.
The UAE has convicted dozens of people, some of them Egyptian, for alleged links to the Brotherhood. Two days ago, the UAE's top court sentenced a Qatari doctor to seven years behind bars after finding him guilty of having links to the group. Rights groups have raised concerns about the fairness of the court proceedings.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Dubai; Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Abdulla Ribhy in Doha, Qatar; Reem Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain and Maggie Hyde in Cairo contributed to this report.