Three Gulf monarchies recalled their ambassadors from Doha Wednesday in an unprecedented escalation in tension with fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar, accused of backing the widely banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain said the decision was made in protest against Qatar's alleged interference in their internal affairs. Doha said it regretted the recall of its envoys but would not follow suit.
GCC nations "have exerted massive efforts to contact Qatar on all levels to agree on a unified policy... to ensure non-interference, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of any member state," the three states announced in a joint statement.
They said they had asked Qatar, a perceived supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in most Gulf states, "not to support any party aiming to threaten the security and stability of any GCC member," citing antagonistic media campaigns.
Critics accuse the influential Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel of biased coverage in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood, and several of its journalists are on trial on Egypt for allegedly supporting the group.
The joint statement said Doha had failed to comply with a commitment by Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to non-interference, made during a summit in Riyadh last year with Kuwait's emir and the Saudi monarch.
During the tripartite meeting in Riyadh in November, Kuwait's emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah had tried to ease tensions between Saudi King Abdullah and Sheikh Tamim.
But the ambassadors' recall followed what newspapers described as a "stormy" late Tuesday meeting of foreign ministers from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh.
The pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily reported that the "marathon" talks lasted nine hours because of "differences on several issues, among them inter-Gulf relations".
Kuwaiti parliament speaker Marzouk al-Ghanem expressed "deep concern and alarm" over the recalls, and the Qatar Stock Exchange closed 2.09 percent down following the decision.
- Differences over Egypt -
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Qatar said the recalls were linked to "differences over issues outside the Gulf Cooperation Council", apparently referring to Egypt, where Doha supported Islamist president Mohamed Morsi while most Gulf countries hailed his overthrow by the army.
"The move taken by the brothers in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain has nothing to do with the interests of the Gulf peoples, their security and stability," said a Qatari council of ministers statement.
"Qatar is very keen on maintaining brotherly links between the people of Qatar and all other Gulf peoples," it said, stressing that it would not recall its own envoys.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies have long been hostile towards Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, fearing that its brand of grass-roots activism and political Islam could undermine their authority.
Most Gulf states hailed the military overthrow of Morsi in July and pledged billions in aid, while Qatar has seen its influence in Cairo evaporate.
Tensions that have been rising for months peaked in early February when Abu Dhabi summoned Doha's ambassador to protest against "insults" to the UAE made by Egypt-born cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi, a Qatari citizen.
The three Gulf countries "have lost hope for change in Qatar's policy" of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and related movements in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla told AFP.
"It seems that the old guard is still active and influential in Qatar," he said, referring to the entourage of former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who had championed Qatar's activist foreign policy before abdicating in favour of his son Tamim last year.
Differences with Qatar are also linked to its "increased coordination with Turkey at the expense of other Gulf monarchies," which view Ankara's regional ambitions with unease, Abdulla said.
For the three Gulf states, "it is now the time to pressure Qatar to change its policy, which has become unacceptable on an Arab and regional level."
On Monday, a UAE court which has jailed dozens of Emirati and 20 Egyptian Islamists sentenced a Qatari to seven years in prison after convicting him of raising funds for a local Muslim Brotherhood-linked group, Al-Islah.
A Qatar rights body on Tuesday slammed the ruling as "unfair", saying he had been convicted based on confessions made under torture.
The GCC, formed in 1981, also includes Kuwait, which is currently the bloc's president and preparing to host the Arab summit later this month, and Oman.