The Saudi-Qatar Rift: Political Islam and Arab Media

Introduction

On June 5th, 2017, a coalition of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with and enacting sanctions against Qatar. The coalition closed the land border and canceled Qatari airspace access over Saudi Arabia, and mounted a limited campaign to recruit North American, European, and other regional blocs to join this soft power fight against Qatar. The stated reasoning for initiating this diplomatic crisis was that Qatar funds terror organizations. However, this crisis and the broader geopolitics of Qatar was as much about security as it is about influence. Al Jazeera, the most popular Arab news source, is owned by Qatar, and demonstrably influences the information Arabs are presented as one of the largest news sources in the Arab world. On January 5th, 2021, the coalition restored diplomatic relations with Qatar at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, marking an end to the crisis. This paper is an analysis of Al Jazeera and Qatar and their relationships with recent events in the Middle East including Middle East power dynamics, the spread of political Islam, Arab Spring, the Qatar Diplomatic Crisis.

 

Regional Factionalism

The 13 demands issued by Saudi Arabia show us the diplomatic crisis was merely a symptom of broader regional factionalism and of the power dichotomy in which every international power is a party. The demand that Qatar stops having any cooperation with Iran or Turkey is born from the respective ideological differences Saudi Arabia has with Iran and Turkey. Al Jazeera is the most influential media source in the Arab world and its reporting often undermines Saudi goals. Lastly, aligned policies is a demand made to strengthen the GCC and the power bloc led by Saudi Arabia.

The GCC is intended to enhance the unity of the Gulf, both in terms of foreign and domestic goals. Every GCC country has a shared goal in diversifying its economic portfolio away from oil or natural gas. The Dolphin Gas Project between 3 GCC member states – Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman – is an initiative that produces, processes, and transports natural gas from Qatar to the UAE and Oman. Curiously, the Dolphin Gas Project persevered through the blockade and natural gas continued to go towards the UAE.

While these initiatives are conducive to establishing an integrated power bloc, internal turmoil within the GCC exists, particularly with regards to the Saudi-Qatar rivalry. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, despite being GCC member states and despite sharing Wahhabism from the Hanbali school of Islamic thought as a state religion, have incongruous national goals. Qatar does not have a religious police force, unlike Saudi Arabia’s mutawwa’in that enforces Islamic law. Qatar’s religious schools are heavily influenced by foreign nationals while religious scholars do not have an institutionalized role in the decision-making process. Compare this with Saudi Arabia which has institutionalized roles for religious scholars in the decision-making process in the Board of Senior Religious Scholars led by the Grand Mufti. This Board issues fatwas to support the goals of the Saudi government.

This distinction of religion’s role in government is to showcase just one key element of the Saudi-Qatari rift: The world’s only two Wahhabi states suffer ideological disparities; Saudi Arabia embraces political Islam, but only of their puritanical interpretation, while Qatar is comparatively secular. This places Qatar ideologically closer to Saudi Arabia’s secular regional rival Turkey.

Qatar’s foreign policy is also largely at odds with Saudi Arabia. Qatar relies heavily on public diplomacy to prop itself up as a regional power. This public diplomacy comes largely in the form of conflict mediation, favorable coverage on Al Jazeera, and establishing itself as a pro-West ally, hence why the United States’ Central Command forward headquarters is located in Qatar. The only truly shared stance Qatar and Saudi Arabia have independent the GCC is on security, particularly with regional unrest and Iran. When there is violent unrest in the Middle East, Iran often uses participants in a proxy role. To prevent conflict from spreading and threatening their respective securities, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have historically acted as mediators. Iran also has expansionist foreign policy goals and because Qatar is a small, militarily vulnerable state that shares an oil field with Iran, it tends to keep relations cordial, even in conflict mediations involving actors supported by Iran – to the disapproval of Saudi Arabia.

 

Al Jazeera and the Arab Spring

In 1996 Al Jazeera became the Arab world’s first 24-hour news network and immediately gained prominence in Arab households because it was the only Arab alternative to non-Arab news networks. While broadcasting video of the 2nd Intifada in Palestine and Osama bin Laden’s video messages after the September 2001 attacks helped Al Jazeera gain popularity, Al Jazeera vaulted to higher esteem among its audience when its debate shows analyzed a topic from multiple viewpoints or presented harsh coverage of decisions made by political leaders. This freewheeling news coverage granted a welcome astonishment to viewers used to state-owned media censoring unsavory points and twisting events for propaganda purposes. The only real competitor Al Jazeera had did not compete until 2003 when affiliates of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family founded Al Arabiya specifically to challenge Al Jazeera’s influence. Thus, Arab audiences had a front-row seat to Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera frequently criticizing their respective sponsors during which Qatar was able to present itself as an equal to Saudi Arabia – therefore increasing Qatari influence and punching force on the global stage.

Despite Al Arabiya’s insistence on being a competitor, polls indicate Al Jazeera ran away with the audience. Polls from 2010 indicated 53.4% of Palestinians trusted Al Jazeera as their primary news source while Al-Arabiya – in 2nd place – held just 12.8% of Palestinian viewers. Al Jazeera’s reporting in Palestine proved to be a major force displaying Qatar’s influence in the region. At the advent of the Goldstone Report, the Palestinian Authority (PA) bungled the chance for holding Israel accountable for human rights violations by caving to American pressure. Al Jazeera ran constant sensationalized coverage for several days and used its market pull to ensure even Al Arabiya followed its lead and reported similarly. Al Jazeera ensured the public knew the PA President Mahmoud Abbas had capitulated to American whims and so he fell from grace in Arab esteems. The London-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi’s then-editor Abdel Bari Atwan demand prosecution of PA leadership on Al Jazeera air. The entire case of the PA’s American subservience scandal and subsequent reporting occurred in 2009, before the start of the Arab Spring.

The perceived successes in the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, may have had different outcomes if it were not for Al Jazeera. Using its 24-hour coverage format and live streaming on its website, Arabs were able to watch the demonstrations independent of news media that showed happy protesters and played the respective national anthems. Al Jazeera’s ratings skyrocketed at the beginning of the Arab Spring. A consistent moral perspective and tone in coverage supporting the demonstrators helped galvanize public support behind the demonstrators, ultimately leading to Tunisian President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali’s and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignations. Qatar has historically had an open-door policy, offering refuge to Islamist political exiles, and even providing some, like Egyptian-born Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a platform in Al Jazeera. As a result of this policy, Qatar held connections to the opposition leaders opposing autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Qatar’s support in countries facing upheaval often went towards Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is considered a terror organization in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE among other Arab states because of its propensity for democracy and non-Wahhabi political Islam. With Qatar’s help, the Muslim Brotherhood briefly attained power in Egypt before a 2013 coup ousted the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar sought Arab solutions to Arab problems and thus mobilized Arab support for international intervention in Libya, assembling the coalition that passed the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that established a no-fly zone over Libya. Qatar also funded Libya’s opposition Islamist groups, namely the Tripoli Brigade and the Rafallah al-Sahati Companies while providing a platform for rebels to preach their intentions on the Doha-based LibyaTV. Throughout the early conflict in Libya, Al Jazeera continued broadcasting information with negative-Qaddafi and pro-Islamist tones. Qatar continues to supply weapons and funding to the Government of National Accord, the Islamist-side of the contemporary conflict opposed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Al Jazeera’s ratings took a hit when it was realized protests in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman – Gulf states – were largely getting ignored. Al Jazeera, as a tool owned by the Qatari government, could not risk instigating unrest in its neighbors (endangering Qatar’s security) and could not cover the protests in the same aggressive manner without inflaming tensions with the GCC, especially Saudi Arabia. Until this point in its history, Al Jazeera had enabled Qatar to punch above its weight because it was a trusted news source among Arab populations. However, its inability to remain independent of Qatar’s geopolitical realities damaged its efficacy while continuing to act as a thorn in other Middle Eastern states.

 

Al Jazeera Post-Arab Spring

Throughout the Arab Spring, many Arab states lamented Qatar’s support for Islamist opposition groups. After the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt, the GCC funneled a $12 billion aid package to Egypt’s military-ruled interim government. However, Qatar was excluded from contributing to this aid because it backed the Muslim Brotherhood government, ultimately restricting its ability to play a role in Egypt’s new government. Later, in 2014, the GCC member states Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha after accusing Qatar of interfering in their internal affairs – via unflattering Al Jazeera coverage and providing refuge to Islamists from their respective countries and amid allegations that Al Jazeera was paying for hotel rooms for Muslim Brotherhood exiles to charter a new direction from Doha. Ambassadors returned to post when Qatar later agreed to deport Gulf nationals affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Jazeera would stop referring to the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a coup, and Al Jazeera would stop covering regional events as aggressively.

Al Jazeera coupled with Qatar’s foreign policy shift during the Arab Spring of intervening in North Africa and the Levant to seemingly pick winners has damaged Qatari reputation. Al Jazeera is no longer the trusted news source it once was, and Qatar is not given the benefit of the doubt in its mediation actions as it was once revered for.

 

The Qatar Diplomatic Crisis

Qatar’s mediation efforts involving payments in a hostage negotiation led to the GCC accusing Qatar of supporting Islamist extremism and subsequently cutting ties in June 2017. The April before the crisis began, Doha allegedly paid a billion-dollar ransom for twenty-six members of the royal family captured in Iraq and fifty militants captured by Jihadists in Syria to an Al Qaeda affiliate and Iranian security forces. As one unnamed source in the Financial Times put it, “the ransom payments were the straw that broke the camel’s back”. The coalition against Qatar used Qatar’s history of paying massive ransoms to insurgent groups as their raison d’etre and as the primary point in advocating additional states to also sanction Qatar. It is widely believed among the coalition states that Qatar actively supports insurgent groups and their ties with Iran undermine Gulf unity. In the days after the blockade began, the coalition presented a list of 13 demands Qatar must adhere to for the resumption of diplomatic relations including Downgrading the Qatari relationship with Iran; closing a Turkish military base; shutting Al Jazeera and other news organizations funded by Qatar; and aligning economic, political, social, and military policies with the rest of the Gulf in accordance with a 2014 GCC agreement. While the 13 demands went unfulfilled despite Qatar rejoining the fold, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are weaker now than if they had not butted heads; Saudi Arabia lost influence over Qatar, while Qatar lost trade and tourist income and drifted towards its ideological ally Turkey. Qatar’s national goals are reflected in this kinship as evidenced by the Turkish army base and increased investments after the blockade – the Turkish Central Bank claims Qatari direct investments in Turkey were at $22 billion in 2019 while being under a billion in 2015. The Turkish-Qatari partnership is certain to last.

 

Future Projections

Al Jazeera and Qatar have survived serious external attempts at change. There is no indication Al Jazeera will become more independent from Qatar and there is no indication Saudi Arabia and Qatar have become friendly after this year-long ordeal. Qatari foreign policy aligned closer to Iran and Turkey in opposition to Saudi Arabia. Al Jazeera coverage of Qatar after relations was restored indicates Qatar remained rational and composed throughout the crisis, fulfilling Dolphin Gas Project obligations, helping mediate the Afghan peace process despite initial American approval of the blockade, and supported media independent of Al Jazeera such as Al Araby TV. The tone of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the diplomatic crisis is, unsurprisingly, one heavily complimentary of Qatar’s leadership throughout the crisis.

Qatar will be expected to continue re-establishing itself as an impartial mediator on the international field while Al Jazeera continues to promote Qatar’s achievements for international prestige. Qatar’s and Al Jazeera’s reputation has been damaged so continued promotion of human rights and persistent positive coverage will be hallmarks in Qatar’s post-Arab Spring recuperation. Considering the cost of the blockade and the vulnerable position it placed Qatar in, it is also expected Qatar will be less persistent in supporting Islamists, though it will support Turkey in its endeavors in Libya and Syria. Over time and with high-quality coverage, trust in Al Jazeera will return or it will undergo rebranding. Through Qatar’s support of other Arab media outlets, expect potential replacements to Al Jazeera’s propaganda role.

Written by Greyson Rowlands

 

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