RIYADH (AFP) - Three Gulf monarchies recalled their ambassadors from Doha on Wednesday in an unprecedented escalation in tension with fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar, accused of backing the largely 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 added that it would not follow suit.
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".
The Qatar Stock Exchange closed 2.09 per cent down following the decision.
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 have also asked Qatar, a perceived supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood which is banned in most Gulf states, "not to support any party aiming to threaten security and stability of any GCC member", it added, 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 statement stressed that despite the commitment of Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to non-interference, made during a mini-summit in Riyadh last year with Kuwait's emir and the Saudi monarch, Doha has failed to comply.
During the tripartite meeting in Riyadh on Nov 23, Kuwait's emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah tried to ease tensions between Saudi King Abdullah and Sheikh Tamim.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies have long been hostile towards the Muslim Brotherhood, fearing that its brand of grassroots activism and political Islam could undermine their authority.
Most Gulf states hailed the Egyptian military's overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in July and pledged billions in aid, while Qatar, which had strongly supported him, 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. They were deeply disappointed," Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla told AFP on Wednesday.
"Qatar's emir was unable to honour the commitment" he made in November.
"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 abdicated in favour of his son Tamim in June.
For Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama, "it is now the time to pressure Qatar to change its policy, which has become inacceptable on an Arab and regional level", Mr Abdulla said.
On Monday, a UAE court which has already jailed dozens of Emirati and 20 Egyptian Islamists sentenced Qatari Mahmud al-Jidah to seven years in prison after he was convicted with two Emiratis of raising funds for a local Muslim Brotherhood-linked group, Al-Islah.
A Qatar rights body on Tuesday slammed the ruling as "unfair", saying Jidah had been convicted based on confessions made under torture.
Differences with Qatar are also linked to its "increased coordination with Turkey at the expense of other Gulf monarchies", Mr Abdulla said, amid fears of Ankara's regional ambitions.
The GCC, formed in 1981, includes two other countries - Kuwait is currently the bloc's president and preparing to host the Arab summit later this month, and Oman, known for its reserved policy.