Saudi Arabia, Egypt and most Gulf states have joined an unprecedented diplomatic and economic attack on Qatar — cutting off the thumb which sticks out in to the Gulf — accusing it of funding terrorism. But at the centre of this concerning issue is the pan-Arab television network, Al Jazeera.
We talk to its former director general, Wadah Khanfar, about what’s really happening and why a TV station is at the center of a crisis pushing the Gulf states and Iran into dangerous territory.
Emboldened by Donald Trump a coalition collection of dictators and monarchs has launched an attack on the one source of Arab-owned independent information in the region, knowing few will object — certainly not Washington. Even even under moderate leaders the US has had an ambiguous relationship with the Qatar-funded television station, initially praising and then attacking its journalismand influence.
Khanfar headed Al Jazeera and was its guiding editorial leader, creating a successful and influential broadcaster in a region where sycophancy and conspiracy theories are what pass for news.
We asked Khanfar, a member of the board of the Global Editors Network, a set of questions, focusing on the Al Jazeera element of the diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Qatar.
Peter Bale: How big a factor do you believe anger at Al Jazeera is part of the Saudi-led initiative against Qatar?
Wadah Khanfar: It is very clear that the current crisis emanates as an extension of continuous fear of Al Jazeera, due to the independent and objective journalism it practices in the Arab world. Al Jazeera transformed Arab media from being natural extensions of intelligence and security agencies to independent sectors whose values were transparency, accountability and democracy. This is exactly what so many Arab regimes fear.
Al Jazeera Arabic has always been a different product with a different tone from AJ English. Can it say that it has reported the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Egypt fairly over the past few years or are there regrets about the balance or fairness of coverage?
Al Jazeera Arabic channel’s editorial policy towards Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf countries has been objective but not aggressive over the last few years. The major issue for the governments in the Gulf region is Al Jazeera’s coverage of Egypt, Libya and pro-Arab Spring forces. I view the current dispute as a continuation of the fallout from Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. The Government of Qatar didn’t share or endorse the policies of fellow Gulf countries to support counter revolutionary forces, which infuriated them, and in turn the Trump administration provided the opportunity for these Gulf states to settle their accounts with Doha and by extension Al Jazeera.
How significant do you believe the influence or permission of Donald Trump for this sort of action was and how does it fit in to his approach to human rights and freedom of the press issues outside the US?
Trump has been rewarded in Riyadh, he was welcomed by a huge reception and given a generous financial package of $480 billion in investment. This was a timely rescue package for a president that faced trouble back home. He gave his blessing to the Saudis and the Emiratis, thereby fulfilling their desire to redraw a new order in the region as they see fit. It is evident that this is a personal endorsement of Trump to regional monarchs’ and is not as a result of consensus within Washington DC. It is also clear from the onset, due to the various contradicting messages coming out of the different departments within the administration, that this is not part of coherent US policy towards the region. The current Administration is conducting foreign policy on a transactional basis that excludes values or even long term American interest. This is a short sighted and shallow approach, as it does not provide stability to an already troubled Middle East nor provide the sought security for the United States.
Why now and why Qatar? Given the history of Wahhabi support for extreme interpretations of Islam and the long-standing Saudi connections with Al Qaeda this seems a twisted logic at the very least to accuse Qatar of supporting extremism.
Accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism is the pretext of this campaign. Fighting terrorism is a common tool in the region, which they use to punish anyone they disagree with. Regimes in the region know that the Western approach to the Arab and Islamic world is centred around fighting terrorism; and is thereby a far easier pretext to justify their actions. The sad aspect of the Western approach is that it has eliminated the word democracy from its lexicon in relation to the Middle East, whilst hoping for stability and security.
The authoritarian regimes are comfortable with their current American approach, and now we are officially back to the pre-Arab Spring era. This is a resumption of an old fight: drying all the fountains of independent conscience in preparation for restoration of the old order in the Middle East. This time, however, the old order has tough new security powers, created by the war on terror and fuelled by support of a president who has jettisoned all US values.
You have talked about this finally stifling the sentiment of the Arab Spring? Do you see a direct connection between the destruction of political Islam in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the increase in extremism and worldwide support for ISIS?
The Muslim Brotherhood as movement was not perfect, they were immature in politics and may have made some major mistakes, but the big picture here is the following:
Peaceful transformation to democracy was the dream of Arab youth and the Arab Spring gave them a rare opportunity to do just that, but counter revolutionary measures have murdered this hope. The path to peaceful reform is now closed, youth are angry and desperate, and the Arab Spring has been hijacked by generals who are supported by wealthy Gulf states. Therefore, we are now heading towards a much more extreme and radical reality.
The fact is that dictatorial and corrupt regimes were the incubators of extremism in the region. Decades of suppressing liberties and violating human rights provided the oxygen for jihadi groups. While these regimes flouted the rule of law, they still enjoyed US support. As a result, the Middle East continues to be engulfed by conflicts and instability.
What do you think the outcome of this will be for Al Jazeera? When?
Any settlement to the current crisis may take several negotiations and can last up to a few months or even longer. However, whatever the outcome of these negotiations, it will not impact Al Jazeera’s editorial policies. This is merely another attempt to undermine Al Jazeera’s integrity but it will not succeed. The State of Qatar values the regional & global status of Al Jazeera, so I do not expect Qatar to succumb to such pressures.
This Interview was first published in Medium in June 19, 2017