The poisonous State of Qatar
By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis
To ordinary people living in the West, the tiny State of Qatar typically conjures three images: women wearing the niqab and trawling public parks and expensive shopping malls in major cities, arrogant men in expensive sports cars acting as if their money puts them above the law and common courtesy and, more recently, bribery and corruption, as represented by the scandal surrounding the decision to let Qatar host the 2022 football world cup.
But, anecdotally, few people in the West associate Qatar with perhaps its most visible and successful international enterprise, Aljazeera TV.
Launched in 1996 as an Arabic-language TV channel and owned by Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family, Aljazeera Media Network now boasts an English channel and offshoots in the Balkans and North America, as well as websites and a digital news and current events channel, AJ+. It has more than 70 bureaus worldwide and employs around 3,000 staff.
The forked tongue of Aljazeera
In Britain at least, Aljazeera TV is seen not as the mouthpiece of the Qatari ruling family, but as a welcome alternative to the bland domestic and US television channels, most of which are echo chambers of establishment values and priorities – and endless, mindless trivia.
However, to many Arabs Aljazeera and Qatar represent two sides of the same coin and, although Aljazeera Arabic is still the most-watched news channel across the Arab world – because the alternatives are so inadequate – it is increasingly held in suspicion, thanks to its parent country.
The oil- and gas-rich state is resented for its interfering pro-Islamist activities. Obscenely rich, with a gross national income of over USD 80,000 per capita, it ostensibly embraces modernity and democracy but in actual fact bankrolls and promotes all forms of Islamism – in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa – supposedly in the name of democracy.
Qatar’s Aljazeera Arabic channel, which contrasts in many ways with its relatively progressive and thought-provoking English counterpart, is an unapologetic and blatant advocate of the far right Muslim Brotherhood and other violent and extremist Islamist bodies. It is a contrast which, as the political commentator Magdi Abdelhadi points out, reflects the Gulf state’s strategy of speaking one language to Western audiences and another to the Arabs.
When mass decapitation is not a story
A recent case in point is Qatar’s attitude towards the decapitation of 21 Egyptian Christians by “Islamic State” cutthroats in Libya, and Egypt’s retaliatory air strikes against the cutthroats in the eastern Libyan jihadist hub of Derna.
A straightforward case of premeditated murder, followed by retaliation, you might think. Not for Qatar’s media outlets.
For the Arabic channel of Aljazeera in particular, the story was not the fact that Egypt had hit back against the Islamist cutthroats who had beheaded 21 innocent and impoverished Egyptian workers but, astonishingly, Egypt’s violation of Libyan sovereignty and the condemnation of the air raids by the unelected and unrecognised Tripoli-based “government” of the Muslim Brotherhood stooge Omar al-Hasi. It is a stance that was parroted, albeit more crudely, by a Qatari-funded pro-Islamist Libyan TV channel, Al-Naba, which went as far as to question that the decapitations of the Egyptians had even taken place.
Benevolence versus duplicity
Qatar and its media outlets seek to present the Gulf state as the benevolent and enlightened emirate supporting the underdog, a theme that is reflected in the programmes of Aljazeera English. But its critics see it more as a duplicitous pillar of US strategy in the Middle East and as being behind some of the most reactionary movements in the Arab world, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the diabolical Islamist coalition fronted by Al-Hasi in Libya.
Qatar’s Aljazeera English channel has carved out a niche for itself, and made itself popular among many Westerners, by bringing to light the hypocrisy and double standards of the United States’ foreign policy and its destructive consequences, especially as regards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But that is not a reflection of Qatari policy. A hint of the real Qatar lies in the fact that the emirate is host to one of the largest US military bases in the region, the Al-Udeid air base, which serves as a forward headquarters of the US Central Command. In 1999 the then emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, told American officials that he would like to see as many as 10,000 US servicemen permanently stationed at Al-Udeid.
Hand in hand with this love affair with the US, the ruling Al-Thani family has “transformed Doha into a refuelling station for the majority of extremists in the world”, according to French journalists Nicolas Beau and Jacques-Marie Bourget. In their book, Le Villain Petit Qatar, cet ami qui nous veut du mal (Our friend Qatar, the little villain who doesn’t wish us well), quoted by Abdelhadi, they say:
The only condition for admission is to be Islamist. Besides an office for the Taleban, you will find the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, several branches of Chechen suicide / “martyrdom” groups, Syrian fundamentalists – the list of religious symbols is limitless. Just create “an Islamic front” and Doha will give you an office, lodgings and a cover.
This, Beau and Bourget argue, has been happening not only in Qatar, but practically anywhere where there are Muslims, from Damascus to Dakar. And France – home to the largest Muslim community in Western Europe – is one such place. The authors, Abdelhadi points out in a blog post published 15 months before the Islamist shootings in Paris, “detail Qatari efforts to use their petrodollars to infiltrate Muslim communities and convert young French Muslims to the cause of Islamism and to support Muslim Brotherhood outfits in Europe”.
Indeed, proselytising for the Muslim Brotherhood has been a central feature of Qatari foreign policy and Aljazeera programmes. In Abdelhadi’s words, the Al-Thanis have played a key role in selling the Muslim Brothers to the West as “the moderate Islamists” that can defeat or at least contain Al-Qaeda, a fiction that has apparently worked for some.
It is in this context that Qatar’s support for the beleaguered Gaza Strip – one of the central features of Aljazeera’s appeal to Western leftists and liberals – must be seen, that is, as support for the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – also known as Hamas – vis-a-vis other Palestinian factions, rather than as unconditional aid to help the Palestinian people survive the criminal siege imposed by Israel, with which Qatar has diplomatic relations and extensive business interests.
But to what end? What does Qatar hope to achieve by being in bed with the United States, Al-Qaeda and other violent Islamists at the same time?
According to Abdelhadi, one possible explanation for Qatar’s embrace of Islamist groups – though not at home, where the emir practices absolute rule – is the desire of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and his successor-son, the present emir, Sheikh Tamim, to stand up and be counted and to leave a legacy of some kind. With a seemingly endless supply of money with which to buy influence, the Al Thanis have sought to further their influence by exploiting existing religious extremist trends and fuelling national political and social discontent.
This begs the question of whether Qatar, a close ally of the United States, on which it is highly dependent for its security, would play the destructive role it is playing in the Arab world without at least an approving nod from Washington.
Another possible motive is more mundane. According to the former head of France’s General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), Jean-Calude Cousseran, quoted in Beau’s and Bourget’s book and cited by Abdelhadi, “the role the emir has taken upon himself in international affairs is the best way to escape from boredom in a world where he has exhausted all means of having fun”.
Whatever might lie behind Qatar’s bizarre foreign policy and the forked tongue of Aljazeera’s Arabic and English channels, one thing is crystal clear. As one Syrian observer points out, the Al-Thanis and their media outlets have polarised Arab societies and turned the struggle for freedom and democracy into prolonged civil wars.