By Zainab Fattah , Dana Khraiche , and Mohammed Sergie
Mysterious goings-on allegedly involving the forcible detention of a Qatari royal and intercepted Bahrain-bound planes have escalated the feud straining ties among Gulf Arab monarchies.
Two commercial jets were intercepted on their regular flight paths to Bahrain’s capital, Manama, the United Arab Emirates’ official news agency WAM reported on Monday. No such thing ever happened, Qatar said.
A day earlier, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Thani, a descendant of Qatar’s founder, accused the U.A.E. of holding him against his will. Not true, the U.A.E. said. It also denied Qatar’s allegation last week that a U.A.E. war jet violated its airspace in December.
The cascade of allegations and denials is raising concerns that the conflict between Qatar and a group of four Arab nations is heating up again after a period of relative calm. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic, trade and transport links with gas-rich Qatar in June, accusing it of destabilizing the region by supporting terrorism, a charge it denies. U.S. and Kuwait attempts to mediate have failed to break the deadlock.
With neither side in the Gulf dispute “interested in a compromise” this kind of development is worrisome, said Hani Sabra, founder of New York-based Alef Advisory. “The hard-line positions of the parties means the chance of accidents is always present.”
The U.A.E.’s claim of intercepted passenger planes is “completely untrue,” Sheikh Saif Al Thani, head of the Qatari government communications office, said on Twitter. Bahrain, one of the countries boycotting Qatar, said Emirates Flight EK837 was intercepted. That plane left Dubai almost an hour later than scheduled and arrived in Manama 32 minutes later, according to the Emirates website, just 12 minutes longer than its scheduled journey time of 20 minutes.
FlightRadar24, which tracks plane movements, said it couldn’t confirm if the incident took place. The data relating to the Emirates flight didn’t show deviation from the standard route, it said.
Qatar’s benchmark stocks index reversed gains after the first reported interception, dropping 2.5 percent at the close in Doha, the biggest fall since the dispute broke out in June. Dubai stocks also extended losses.
“The U.A.E. will seek to preserve its relationship with the U.S. defense and security establishment, and will therefore probably not opt for an immediate escalation,” said Ayham Kamel, head of the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group. But while a military confrontation in the Gulf crisis “is very unlikely, it’s far from inconceivable,” he said.
The U.S. Air Force Central Command, which has a regional headquarters at Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base, didn’t immediately respond to a request from Bloomberg seeking comment on Monday.
Sheikh Abdullah was courted by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and was touted in U.A.E. media last year as a possible replacement for Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. His son and a brother on Monday asked Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee to follow up on his condition, according to a panel spokeswoman.
The family confirmed “the continued detention and restriction of movement by the Emirati authorities,” Qatar’s human rights committee said in a statement. U.A.E. officials denied the sheikh was being held.
Separately, President Donald Trump spoke with Sheikh Tamim Monday to discuss ways to strengthen U.S.-Qatari relations on security and economic issues, according to a White House statement, which didn’t reference the allegations of intercepted planes.
“The leaders discussed areas in which the United States and Qatar can partner to bring more stability to the region, counter malign Iranian influence, and defeat terrorism,” according to the statement.
— With assistance by Richard Weiss, and Laura Litvan