“Babies – they are just babies,” a veteran Al Jazeera man roared last weekend about the Gulf states. “They are childish, they are infantile, they are tribal.” And I could understand his anger. Even Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, the present Emir of Qatar, has never had much love for the satellite television channel. It was his father Hamad’s toy. Indeed, when Hamad paid a formal visit to the Doha campus of Al Jazeera, Tamim – soon to overthrow his Dad – remained ostentatiously at the outer door. Now, of course, thanks to Saudi Arabia, Al Jazeera has become a symbol of Qatar’s national sovereignty.
Press freedom advocates have been lathering up their fury for the undemocratic Saudis, demanding that none shall touch the sacred studios of a Qatari channel that has in fact been pretty miserable in its reporting of Gulf Arab affairs over the years – not least events in the highly undemocratic emirate of Qatar itself. Last year – and early this year – Al Jazeera dispensed with many of its staff. And over the past twelve months, freelance journalists paid by the Qataris were told they were off the payroll. In the last four weeks, the Qataris have invited them back – only to discover that they were already on the Saudi payroll.
So the beacons of press freedom in the Gulf burn not as brightly as we might wish. Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel – and its “Live” affiliate, which so openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – were so harsh in their condemnation of Field Marshal President Abdul-Fattah al-Sissi of Egypt that they gave up any shred of impartiality. Several “Live” cameramen turned out, after Sissi’s coup d’etat, to have been members of the Brotherhood itself.
But that’s not really the point. The Qatar “crisis” – the inverted commas are necessary because this is a crisis as fake as the claims the Saudis are making against Qatar – is about taming the one Gulf nation which has the potential to outshine the Saudi kingdom and dictate the outcome of the Syria war. And it may well end in the destruction – real if not acknowledged – of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the GCC alliance of six Arab states which was nursed into life by the United States amid two earlier and very real crises: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution. It will be the ultimate irony if a mad American President’s “go-for-’em-boys” speech in Riyadh last month brings this about.
Trump’s boastful promise of lots of “beautiful” weapons for Qatar – followed by his Twitter post condemning Qatar for financially supporting “terror” – were just part of the comedy show for Americans who have grown used to their Commander in Chief’s insanity. But for the new Warrior Chief of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, defence minister and now Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MbS), it provided the power to command the GCC to do his bidding. Trump hates the free media. Saudi Arabia hates free media. And we forget – and the BBC seems to forget – that it was Mohamed’s uncle, King Fahd, who put paid to the first version of an independent international channel in the Middle East. The doomed BBC Arabic Television was put together between the BBC and a Saudi giant called the Muwarid Group.
But no sooner had the BBC started to air critical documentaries on the Saudis themselves – part of the remit of its impartial news service – than the Saudis shut them down. Orbit, a Muwarid subsidiary, simply switched the BBC off the satellite in April 1996. Many of the BBC’s staff immediately emigrated – to the new Al Jazeera channel, which went on air from Qatar seven months later. The present Al Jazeera is thus the orphan stepchild of the earlier BBC version which the Saudis head-chopped from the air waves more than two decades ago. Of course, Al Jazeera carried graphic footage of the Palestinian intifadas, Arabs torn apart by American and British shellfire and dead British soldiers. But it was free to air Osama bin Laden’s sermons, support the Muslim Brotherhood – millions of whose members, especially in Jordan and Egypt are not “terrorists” – and even advertise the Islamist political platform of the Al Nusrah/al-Qaeda front.
And here we reach a critical point in the story of the “crisis” in the Gulf. For when Nusrah underwent one of its regular name-changes – the further from al-Qaeda the better, of course – to Tahrir al-Sham, Al Jazeera gave its leader a two-part interview in which the Islamists could explain how much they loved Christians and their fellow Shiite Muslims and were worthy of being regarded as the only serious opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. These two one-hour programmes on Al Jazeera were highly sensitive because Saudi Islamists – let us never suggest these might include the Saudi government – have always favoured the vicious Isis over the more political (though often equally cruel) Nusrah. Furthermore, the emergence of the “new” Nusrah/al-Qaeda on Al Jazeera coincided with the almost total collapse of the now imaginary Free Syria Army – hitherto supported by Barack Obama, David Cameron and other fantasists.
Qatar, in other words, was playing a leading role in the Syrian war, supporting a group which the Saudis opposed while at the same time maintaining a quiet relationship with the regime itself, helping to free hostages held by Nusrah in both Syria and Lebanon. Most recently, Qatar even opened new proxy relations with the pro-Assad Shia Hezbollah movement in Lebanon after it approved the sending of two senior officials of the Sunni Palestinian Hamas organisation – hitherto funded and supported by Qatar – to speak to Hezbollah. It also agreed to the handing over of a Sunni extremist hiding in the Palestinian Ein el-Helweh camp in Sidon to the Lebanese intelligence service.
On top of all this, Qatar has just announced its plan to raise liquid natural gas capacity by 30 per cent, increasing production from its North Field which it shares with Iran. US gas producers may struggle to compete. Iran, as oil magnates know all too well, is ready to increase production on its side of the North Field. No wonder the Saudis are outraged. And perhaps, soon, the Americans. Even more so if a post-war Syria permits Qatar to run a pipeline across its territory to the Mediterranean and to Europe. Qatar, in other words, now needs Iran more than it needs Saudi Arabia.
So cloaked with threats about “terrorism”, the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Egyptians have turned upon this – for them – very dangerous little emirate. How can MbS maintain a conflict with the Shia of the Middle East – and especially Yemen – if Qatar is collaborating with the Iranians? And with Nusrah. And Assad. And if Qatar is helped – let us not forget this – by the Kuwaiti “negotiators”, who are no enemies of the Iranians, and the Omanis who are sending food to Qatar and who engaged in naval manoeuvres with the Iranians only three months ago.
For the rest of the world, the Gulf “crisis” only shames the Arabs. The Israelis must be clapping – though they are backing the Saudis – and the Palestinians are forgotten (as usual) and the war goes on in Syria (and Iraq) as usual, and we are all transfixed by the infantile and tribal quarrels of some of the wealthiest human beings on earth.