Al Jazeera: The Qataris are coming

One of the main reasons for the Sunni Arab world’s decision to isolate Qatar, is the disproportionate media power the tiny Gulf state has developed, and exercised.

Qatar is, in some ways, a TV channel with a country. It had become a thorn in the side of the Gulf region’s heavyweight leader, Saudi Arabia, which is growing more assertive. The Saudis want to cut Qatar down to size, and to send a warning to it, that the time has come to join Riyadh’s orbit.

Pan Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera’s influence is one of Qatar’s strategic force multipliers. It has, for years, been aggravating the Saudis, the Egyptians, and much of the Arab world.

Qatar’s 37-year-old Sheikh Emir Athani, who rose to power after deposing his father, sees the power inherent in Al Jazeera as a way to deter Qatar’s much larger, more powerful neighbors.

Between the lines, he seems to be saying, to the Saudis and others, ‘Be careful. This channel is my unconventional weapon. These cameras and antennae are my atomic program. With them, I can get unleash mass demonstrations on your streets and topple your governments.’

Every Arab authoritarian leader — besides Qatar’s monarch himself – fear Al Jazeera. Until 1996, in every Middle Eastern Arab state, the number of channels was limited to one; broadcasting the nightly news. That channel was under total government supervision.

Even today, in Cairo, for example, tanks are parked outside of state broadcasters, and military personnel roam the corridors. The average Egyptian, a country whose population makes up a quarter of the entire Arab world, was not aware of the corruption or human rights abuses of his or her own government; until Al Jazeera came along.

In 1996, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Athani, who was then ruler of Qatar, understood the power that satellite media coverage offered to his small kingdom, and set up Al Jazeera (Arabic for The Peninsula).

The channel began jumping over the old censorship walls of the 20th century, leading millions of Arab citizens toward a state of shock and disbelief. Qatar broadcast critical coverage of many of its fellow Arab states, often tinging the coverage with an Islamist slant.

Since then, Al Jazeera and Qatar have made many enemies. They are banned from multiple countries, and from the Palestinian Authority.

The channel, like Qatar’s ruling family, enjoys a close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, a source of major frustration for states that the Brotherhood threatens.

In addition to Al Jazeera, Qatar took out an ‘insurance policy,’ in the form of the United States Central Command headquarters, which it hosts on its soil.

One of the largest American bases around, these headquarters ensure that no state can send tanks or troops into Qatar, even when the Qataris seriously aggravate their neighbors.

Qatar is, at the same time, trying to gain closer ties with Israel. In this context, I was invited to the country, visiting it a total of eight times in recent years.

Qatar understands that Israel’s strategic value has grown enormously in recent years. It maintains a dialogue with the Netanyahu government. Jerusalem uses the Qataris as a channel to communicate with Hamas.

During my visits there, I visibly saw Qatar’s additional survival strategies take shape. They are developing the country into a business hub, preparing it for the time that gas and oil run dry a few decades from now.

Business people from all over the world and tourists heading east stop off at Doha, home to one of the most advanced airports in the world.

Many of those have begun exploring and exploiting business opportunities. Some have relocated.

Qatar, a scorching desert kingdom, was able to place itself on the world map, by creating an air travel hub in Doha linking East and West. This represents an additional Qatari strategy — the transportation revolution.

Additionally, it implemented an educational revolution, by providing government funding for Qatari youths to travel to the best universities in the world, before returning to work.

Qatar Airways is a world class, global brand, sponsoring the Barcelona soccer club. This sponsorship ended recently, when the club discontinued its financial relationship with the Gulf state.
Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022 — a major national project — further consolidating its global brand image. Qatar’s sports revolutions helped promote its ambitious global branding goals. It attracted the biggest sporting championship events in the world. Qatar created the Aspire sports academy, where thousands of leading athletes train.
Qatar is a state with fewer than 300,000 citizens (and where two million foreign workers live). Due to its vulnerability, it dances at two weddings at the same time.

It allowed the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas to settle in Doha, abiding by the old mafia axiom, as espoused in the Godfather film: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

The Athani clan has controlled Qatar for more than 150 years. Despite the crisis with Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely to take steps that will endanger its kingdom, and will, eventually have to compromise.

The US has a clear interest in ending the Qatari crisis, and is likely to ask the Saudis to take things down a notch.

From the Israeli perspective, despite Qatar’s unsavory friendships with Islamists, its willingness to pay for Gaza’s electricity needs and reconstruction projects was a positive thing. Qatar’s money helped contain Gaza’s explosiveness, and delay the start of another conflict.

Quietly, it is safe to assume, Israel, like the US, would like to see the Qatari crisis resolved soon.

Edited By Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited By Benjamin Anthony (www.oursoldiersspeak.org)

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.

About the Author
Henrique Cymerman is a journalist of international repute and is the recipient of over 20 journalistic awards including the Daniel Pearl Award. He has covered current affairs in the Middle East for three decades, including in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the extended Arab world. In his native Portugal and Spain he has been nominated "Comendador" by the King and President, a title of nobility, and Pope Francis nominated him "Angel of Peace". Henrique also plays a role in Judeo-Christian relationships due to his exceptionally close relationship with the Pope. His book "Voices from the center of the World" includes interviews with key personalities in the region, such as Yasser Arafat, and the last interview with Itzhak Rabin before Rabins' assassination. He also co-wrote the book "Francis, From Rome to Jerusalem," depicting the behind the scenes mechanics of the Papal visit to the region, in which he was deeply involved. He is an international policy contributor to Our Soldiers Speak.
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