The Saudi-led blockade has failed to turn Qatar into a more traditional and pliable GCC state. Qatari media has come out unscathed, and that might have the potential to institutionalise the current crisis.
The Arabian Peninsula’s sheikdoms have long opposed a host of political ideologies that gained traction throughout the Arab world during the Cold War. Marxism, Communism, Ba’athism, Nasserism, Qutbism, and Khomeinism had gained adherents and shaped revolutionary causes that transformed and restructured societies and governments, or at least sought to, throughout the Middle East, including within the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.
Left-leaning, anti-imperialist, and Arab nationalist forces toppled monarchs in Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958), and Libya (1969). In 1967, the Arabian Peninsula’s first Marxist regime came to power with the independence of South Yemen, and Soviet-, Chinese-, and North Korean-backed Marxist insurgents waged a bloody rebellion against the Sultan of Oman from 1965 to 1976. In the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula states established the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 as institution with numerous purposes, chiefly the collective protection of its member states from the region’s anti-status quo forces.
Qatar’s relations with certain non-state actors that adhere to ideologies opposed by Doha’s fellow GCC capitals have been a major root cause of the eight-month-old Qatar crisis. By hosting prominent dissidents from other Arab countries, providing Muslim Brotherhood clerics with media platforms to deliver politicised messages to a pan-Arab audience, and financially supporting certain anti-status quo players in the Arab world such as Hamas and other armed Islamist factions, Qatar’s relationship with such non-state actors has led to half of the GCC’s members accusing the founding member of the Council of being a state sponsor of terrorism.
Despite certain perceptions of Qatar’s support for various Islamist factions as ideologically-driven, they are instead opportunistic, not ideological.
Doha’s ties with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood need to be analyzed within the context of the Qatari government’s relations with a host of anti-status quo players in the region, including non-Islamists, which Doha has invested in for the sake of making geopolitical gains and extending its influence over new actors in the region seen to be (at least potentially) the future of politics in certain countries.
In other words, during the Arab Spring uprisings—and even before 2011—Qatar thought that its ties with Muslim Brotherhood wings across the Arab world would place Doha “ahead of the curve” in a fast-changing Middle East.
As a monarchy itself, Qatar has been able to back offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood (a movement that opposes monarchism) because of its socio-economic and demographic realities that are unique in the GCC.
As the Council member with the highest GDP per capita and the smallest native population, Qatar’s financial resources, tiny population, and geography along with the fact that virtually no genuine opposition to the Al Thani family exists in the country have enabled Doha to promote anti-status quo forces in the region without fear of blowback that might inspire Qataris to revolt against their rulers in Doha.
To be sure, the issues of wealth and income inequality, poverty, and marginalisation do pose threats to stability in the states blockading Qatar, and there is a history of Iranian-backed Shia factions and/or Muslim Brotherhood offshoots in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain opposing the royal families.
One of the main claims made by the countries blockading Qatar is that Doha has patronised terrorism in the region through its media outlets. As underscored by the GCC’s diplomatic spat in 2014 and the 13 demands issued last year by the blockading countries as the basis for resolving the Council’s ongoing row, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain intended to pressure Qatar into shutting down media platforms headquartered in the emirate such as Al Jazeera that allegedly offer Islamists platforms to deliver their messages to Arabs/Muslims worldwide.
However, more than eight months into the GCC crisis, officials in Doha have not only refused to close a single network in the Qatari capital, they have also championed their broadcasting of Al Jazeera and the emirate’s media culture, which is arguably the second most open in the GCC, only behind Kuwait.
To curry favor with Western governments and societies, Qatar has hailed its media landscape and activist foreign policy as forward thinking and on the side of Arabs seeking greater transparency and protection of human rights, including freedom of expression. Qatar’s argument before the international community is that Doha’s culture of inclusivity and transparency has made it the victim of an unjust blockade.
Regardless of the moral arguments made on behalf of both sides of the GCC crisis, the reality is that the blockading countries have failed to transform Qatar into a more ‘traditional’ GCC state.
By strengthening Doha’s security alliances outside of the GCC—chiefly Turkey and the United States—and turning to alternative trade routes to bypass the blockade, the Qataris have proven capable of withstanding the quartet’s pressure without capitulating to any demands.
Absent any substantive domestic threat to the Al Thani rulers’ authority, Doha is likely to continue viewing its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-status quo players in the region as a means to extend Qatar’s influence abroad, especially via the media sector.
Naturally, as other GCC countries’ rulers see their legitimacy as challenged by such clerics, dissidents, civil society members, and political activists who appear on Qatari networks, the ideological threat posed by Doha’s media culture and independent foreign policy in the post-Arab Spring context will serve to further institutionalise the Qatar crisis.
Ultimately, the fact that the GCC’s founding members never reached a consensus on media culture and how much autonomy each member could have to determine what restrictions the six states would impose on their networks and newspapers is a major factor contributing to the organization’s irrelevance amid the Qatar crisis.
For the leadership in Doha, maintaining Al Jazeera and other media platforms that air the opinions of figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-status quo forces is a matter of sovereignty.
Most likely, any reconciliation between Qatar and the blockading countries would require Doha making concessions on the media front, as Doha did in 2014, at least slightly. Yet there are no indicators that Qatar is on the verge of doing so to restore diplomatic relations with its former allies.
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