When it comes to international diplomacy, Saudi Arabia and its friends in the Gulf have the grace of a ballerina wearing hobnailed boots. Weighed down by their own sense of self-importance, these petulant male-dominated regimes are used to getting their own way and few will stand up to them. Even their friends in the West, fuelled by greed and super arms deals, are too afraid to rein in the corrupt overlords who rule their people with a rod of iron.
Acting as a mediator, Kuwait has now presented Qatar with a list of demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt after all four cut ties with the tiny state on 5 June. One of the demands is for Qatar to shut down Al-Jazeera. To those of us with long memories, this will come as no surprise, because Saudi Arabia simply cannot tolerate criticism and it has a track record of attacking unfavourable media exposure.
In 1980, for example, the government in Riyadh threatened governments, politicians and TV corporations across the globe if they dared to broadcast a TV docudrama, Death of a Princess. The Saudis tried to intimidate Britain with economic sanctions, including the withholding of oil supplies, and recalled their ambassador from London. In the US, oil-rich companies threatened to withdraw sponsorship and advertising from TV stations if the programme was broadcast. A Middle East state attempting to gag the world? Yes, that is exactly what Saudi Arabia was doing.
As it turned out, the broadcast did go ahead and revealed details of the 1977 execution of Princess Mishaal Bint Fahd Bin Mohammed, a granddaughter of the then Saudi king’s elder brother. She was executed in public for adultery, as was her alleged lover Khalid Mahallal.
The Saudi government was outraged. More than a decade later, in 1996, the BBC was forced to close down its Arabic section following pressure from Riyadh when the Saudis again sought to suppress a documentary exposing more executions in the country. Around 250 journalists lost their jobs
This turned out to be a massive own goal by the Saudis; the BBC-trained, highly skilled journalists were bankrolled by the then Emir of Qatar and launched the media phenomenon that is Al-Jazeera. The subsequent heroic journalism of the Arabic section set the gold standard in war reporting back in 2001; Al-Jazeera was the only broadcaster inside Afghanistan after the horrific events of 9/11 and the launch of the “War on Terror”.
It was the Arab Spring, though, which came to define both the Arabic and English sections of Al-Jazeera, with its coverage of the revolutions. As dictators were toppled in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, the network gave a live, round-the-clock voice to the protestors that they would never have enjoyed under the regimes which had brutalised them. This desire for freedom sent shock waves across the region, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
I should declare a personal interest here; I worked as a senior editor in Al-Jazeera’s Doha headquarters throughout the Iraq war and was sacked for being overly combative with some of my bosses as we developed and launched the English website. For the record, I sued for unfair dismissal in Qatar and won my case and both subsequent appeals in Doha courts. Despite our differences, I will defend the professionalism of Al-Jazeera, the dedication of its staff and their fearless efforts to bring the unvarnished truth to the outside world. It’s not an easy job when both America and Arab neighbours try to influence editorial content.
Al-Jazeera’s correspondents and producers have over the years been harassed, arrested, beaten and even killed in the line of duty. In 2005, it was rumoured that US President George W Bush had discussed bombing the network’s studio in Doha during a meeting with Tony Blair, before being persuaded that it was “a bad idea”. However the US did bomb Al-Jazeera’s bureaus in Kabul in November 2001 and Baghdad in April 2003. The latter took place despite the network having provided the Pentagon with map co-ordinates of the office’s location; journalist Tareq Ayoub was killed when US missiles destroyed the building.
It’s true that the network’s news output rarely covers events in Qatar but it is definitely not a passive mouthpiece for the ruling family; as far as I could ascertain, editorial interference was non-existent. Many supporters of a free media around the world must be hoping that the Qatari government will show greater resolve than previous British governments, which have made extraordinary decisions to appease the prickly egos of the royal families in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
Al-Jazeera is not the only media outlet targeted by these three countries (plus Egypt); they want Qatar to close others funded by the oil- and gas-rich Gulf State, either directly or indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye. Jesus is said to have told his disciples, “The truth will set you free.” He was targeted by the oppressive regime of his day; 2000 years later little has changed in the region when it comes to delivering the truth to the masses.
Qatar is also being told to cut all ties with “terrorist organisations”, of which the Muslim Brotherhood is alleged to be one. Again the UAE and Saudi have form on this sort of thing; they exerted pressure on David Cameron in his early days as British Prime Minister to expose the movement as a terrorist group. Rather than jeopardise lucrative trade deals with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Cameron commissioned a report about the Brotherhood; to his embarrassment, it found no evidence or suggestion of illegal activity by the movement.
Fearful of the reaction from the Gulf, Cameron shelved the report until pressure mounted for its publication. Leaving absolutely no time for debate, the prime minister published the long-delayed document just hours before MPs left Westminster for the Christmas recess in 2015.
Although it was accepted that the Brotherhood is a legitimate political group, Cameron said that officials will “intensify scrutiny of the views and activities” of the movement, because some aspects “run counter to British values”. As I pointed out in MEMO at the time, the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt also operate “counter” to British values.
“The origin of the investigation and review makes for uncomfortable reading thanks to some investigative work by the Guardian newspaper,” I wrote. “We know, for example, that it was conceived after Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, met Cameron at Number 10 and was briefed to express the UAE’s ‘concern’ after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was declared Egypt’s first democratically elected president in June 2012.” No doubt a great deal of diplomatic language was used, I continued, but, in essence, it appears that Cameron agreed to commission a report on the Muslim Brotherhood to pacify the UAE, which offered Britain some lucrative business deals in return.
In documents seen by the newspaper, it appears that the UAE deals were likely to generate billions of pounds for BAE Systems and allow BP to bid for drilling rights in the Gulf. On a visit to Abu Dhabi in 2014, Sir John Jenkins — one of the authors of the government’s flawed report — was apparently told that the trust between Britain and the Emirates “has been challenged due to the UK position towards the Muslim Brotherhood [because] our ally [Britain] is not seeing it as we do: an existential threat not just to the UAE but to the region.”
While Western governments have buckled under pressure from Saudi and the UAE — Egypt under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has lost its regional clout and Bahrain is more interested in soft power — I’m hopeful that Qatar will stand firm. What the state lacks in size, it more than compensates in terms of power and influence, sitting on the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world.
Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family has been at the helm for nearly 200 years and in that time the state, which shares a border with Saudi, has grown steadily in stature on the global stage. Its government endeared itself to the American people when it donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the victims of Hurricane Katrina; bolstered the peace process in Darfur; brokered a deal between rival Lebanese militias; and, long before Saudi Arabia’s military interference, helped to reduce tribal tensions in Yemen.
It also took a lead role in the Arab Spring. Qatar was the only state in the Middle East to support the Egyptian people in their uprising before joining in military action against Gaddafi’s Libya, providing funding for the rebels and even military aircraft for the NATO-led bombing campaign. The UAE and Saudi backed Al-Sisi and support the remnants of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.
While Western-style democracy is absent from their own political landscape, democracy per se appears to hold no fear for Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani and his government. Elsewhere, Qatar has pushed the Arab League’s efforts to sanction and isolate Syria and this has also upset its Gulf neighbours, as it looks to have replaced the Saudis in terms of regional leadership.
If people are known by the company they keep, the same could be said of governments, and so it is interesting to note that among those lining up to cheer the Saudi leadership is Israel, which clearly supports the move against Qatar. “The Sunni Arab countries, apart from Qatar,” claimed former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, “are largely in the same boat with us.” Revelling in the regional turmoil is US-born former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, who tweeted: “No longer Israel against Arabs but Israel and Arabs against Qatar-financed terror.”
It is, of course, a cheap allegation to throw at anyone, because proof of “supporting terror” is rarely provided. When Israel jumped on the post-9/11 “War on Terror” bandwagon, legitimate resistance to its military occupation of Palestine was labelled as “global terrorism”; it’s a slander and narrative that has stuck.
The Arab quartet’s moves against Qatar didn’t stop US warships taking part in exercises with the Qatari Navy on 15 June. Could it be that the Pentagon knows that the allegations are without foundation; that, indeed, when everyone is “a terrorist” or “terror supporter” then, in reality, nobody is? The impact of the word terrorism has been neutralised with its too-frequent use by people who really should know better.
The new friends of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Israel tell us all we need to know about the real reasons behind the Arab blockade of tiny Qatar. They have nothing to do with “terrorism”, but everything to do with protecting Israel, blunting the effectiveness of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and shuffling the Palestinian issue off the Arab agenda.
By maintaining a calm dignity in the face of these attacks, Qatar is giving the Saudis and their allies a masterclass in international diplomacy. Whether it will do Emir Tamim and his government any good or not remains to be seen, but they deserve our admiration and support for standing up for freedom of thought; emphasising the ongoing importance of Palestine to the Muslim world; and defending the integrity of Qatar’s sovereignty.