The sands of the Gulf are shifting under Qatar
Doha is calling the boycott against it a blockade. The purpose of this semantic game is to reap the benefits of Qatar’s soft power in the Arab world. Since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s coup against his father in 1995, the Qatari regime has been trying diligently to construct in the popular Arab imagination a picture of Qatar as a symbolic powerhouse and an exceptional emirate in the Gulf region.
During the first decade of this century, Doha laid the groundwork for a soft power system based on four essential components: The Al Jazeera channel with its deceitful doublespeak; research and study centres manned by Azmi Bishara and his cohorts that reshaped the Arab consciousness of regional and international causes through Qatari lenses; a religious platform headed by Yusuf al-Qaradawi to provide religious legitimacy to Doha’s policy choices; and a calculated openness on human rights through support of a number of civil society organisations and the creation of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
Through careful manipulation of these four components, Qatar has become a destination of choice for intellectuals seeking funds for their ideological or cultural projects, for disciples of various religious tendencies, especially fundamentalist tendencies, and for journalists in search of a unique media experience.
During these foundational years, Qatar has attracted a paradoxical political mix. There were leftists, Arab nationalists and Islamists such as Osama bin Laden and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There were people proclaiming all sorts of contradictory ideologies, from the disintegration of the geographical state to the importance of centralised power. There were post-liberalism defenders and moral police defenders.
As some confused minds and politically perplexed souls flocked to Qatar for money and recognition, the country invested in the moral weight and symbolic added value of every principled intellectual and uncommitted politician. The aim was to constitute a strategic stock of vassals with symbolic power who would eventually be used to destabilise countries and hand them over to the Muslim Brotherhood.
We must admit that the Qataris’ design of the quartet — the intellectual, the mufti, the news channel and civil society — has produced quite a sizeable collection of intellectual and cultural works and pushed other Arab capitals to set up their own networks of strategic thinking and cultural production. The benefits, however, remain marginal because the core of the system had ulterior motives: To wait for the state institutions of several powerful Arab countries to fall apart and pounce on the local power apparatus.
Doha is frantically looking for supporters but all it can find are pseudo-Islamist figures more concerned about their own fate than that of Qatar.
During the “Arab spring,” powerful circles in Doha thought the time had come for their true allies in major Arab countries to take over. It was time to hire the services of the quartet of the intellectual, the mufti, the news channel and civil society.
As events unfolded in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, Bishara was selling his view that peaceful political reform in those countries was impossible and that transition through violence was inevitable. A doctrinal platform for religious edicts, led by Qaradawi, served as an exponent for Doha’s political proclivities.Al Jazeera streamed daily reports focusing on the degradation of state institutions and the gradual destruction of national resources. Finally, Qatari charities flocked in numbers under the guise of humanitarian aid while, in fact, they were channels for soft extremism.
As soon as the Qatari soft power machinery revealed its true destructive nature, public opinion in Arab countries shifted considerably. Al Jazeera lost millions of followers who switched to Lebanese channels with a focus on protecting country and humanity. Many intellectuals, political pundits, activists and reformists turned their backs on the Qatari machinery. Many journalists and media people who had sincerely believed in the Qatari project and who had taken an active part in its inception resigned when the mask had fallen.
In the game of nations, Qatar suddenly realises that its soft power base has failed miserably. It has decided to turn to Tehran and Moscow for support, which contradicts its former media and political choices and strategies. Qatar finds itself appealing for help from two regional powers it vilified during the years of the “Arab spring,” especially in the context of what was happening in Syria and Iraq.
A few years ago, Qatar was the master of the game of open skies and had easily won the hearts and minds of oppressed Arab populations everywhere. Those days are over and the sands are shifting in the Gulf region and the Arab world.