NEW DELHI: All eyes are on the Gulf as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut off ties with Qatar, going as far as closing off land, sea and air crossings and sending tensions in the already volatile region spiralling out of control.

The root of the crisis is regional rivalry, with Saudi Arabia reacting to a report published in Qatar’s official news agency on May 23. The report quoted Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the country’s ruler, criticising US President Donald Trump’s efforts to isolate Iran in the region. Iran, the Sheikh reportedly said, was an “Islamic power that cannot be ignored.” In addition to criticising hostility to Iran, the Sheikh allegedly sympathised with three Islamist groups and accused Saudi Arabia of perpetuating an extremist ideology that spurs terrorism. The report additionally quoted the Sheikh saying that Qatar and Israel share a close relationship -- a statement that received a lot of attention in a region that largely, at least in terms of an official position, remains critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Saudi Arabia and Iran remain bitter regional rivals, and the first sign of the crisis spurred by the report was evinced by frantic phone call from a Qatari government advisor to a Reuters journalist at 6 am on May 24. The advisor told the journalist that the website of the official state news agency had been hacked, and that the Sheikh had said none of what was published in the already controversial piece.

Qatar’s government followed with an official clarification, saying that its news agency had been hacked. The government added that hackers even took control of the Qatar News Agency’s Twitter feed, and used it to post quotes wrongly attributed to the Sheikh, including criticism of other Arab nations.

As tensions escalated, the United States joined in, throwing its weight behind the hacker story and pinning the blame on its own rival -- Russia. Russia quickly denied the allegation, with Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, dismissing the claim as “yet another fake, another lie.”

To be fair, the allegations of hacking are not without precedent. In the past, hackers have released confidential information about clients at the Qatar National Bank, including those of the royal family. A few years ago, in 2012, hackers took down the systems of Qatar’s natural gas producing company, RasGas.

For Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region, however, it didn’t matter whether the report was true, or news planted by disruptive hackers. As far as Riyadh is concerned, the report puts into words the Qatar leadership’s regional policy -- and Saudi Arabia has long frowned upon Qatar’s perceived closeness to Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have refused to restore ties with Qatar, insisting that the tiny Gulf state breaks all links with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Iran. The Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told reporters that “nobody wants to hurt Qatar. It has to choose whether it must move in one direction or another direction. We took this step with great pain so that it understands that these policies are not sustainable and must change.” The minister added that Qatar was undermining the Palestinian Authority and Egypt in its support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want to see Qatar implement the promises it made a few years back with regard to its support of extremist groups, to its hostile media and interference in affairs of other countries.”

Saudi Arabia is additionally concerned that Qatar may fund or support activities that aim to destabilise the Saudi government. "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 Egyptian state." Qatar, of course, denies the charge.

The UAE threw its weight behind Saudi Arabia, with foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, threatening more curbs unless Qatar took “iron-clad” measures to stop funding militants. The country further threatened anyone publishing sympathetic pieces toward Qatar with 15 years imprisonment. UAE also barred Qatari passport- or resident visa-holders from entering its borders.

“Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of bias towards Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates, whether it be through the means of social media or any type of written, visual or verbal form,” UAE attorney general, Hamad Saif al-Shamsi, said.

Qatar, on its part, argued -- as it has in the past -- that Saudi Arabia and its allies are intentionally targeting it. Qatar claims that unlike other Gulf Cooperation Council nations, it is not deferential to Saudi Arabia, and is thus paying a price. Qatar has huge natural gas reserves, enabling it to be the richest country in terms of per capita income in the world. As such, it has operated independent of Saudi Arabia, and has fostered ties with Iran, and thrown its support behind various players in the region. For instance, during the Arab Spring in Egypt, Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood -- angering Saudi Arabia in the process, as Riyadh is concerned over the Brotherhood’s activities within its own territory.

As the political drama -- the tensest the region has seen in years -- plays out, the fact that hackers or ‘fake news’ may have been trigger is a moot point. The tensions that spurred the diplomatic crisis are very real, with the Saudi-Iran regional rivalry once again determining politics in the region.