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The Genesis of Qatar’s Foreign Policy 19, June 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Egypt, Foreign Policies, Qatar.
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The following article appeared in Sada, Carnegie Middle East’s super online journal under the title ‘Qatar’s Global Bargaining Chips’.

The fundamental thrust of Qatar’s foreign policy stems from two interrelated factors: the limitations of its location and the elite’s appreciation of how best to overcome these constraints. Historically, Qatar has always been a small power among larger ones and this mismatch has forced the ruling elites to seek a range of protective agreements, while maintaining as much autonomy as possible.

The latest incarnation of an external guarantor for Qatar is America, whose protection was sought in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait. While Qatar gratefully accepts the US security blanket, its leadership nevertheless assiduously seeks to diversify its dependency on America. Not only does this potentially offer Qatar more freedom of action, lowering its ability to be pressured by the United States, but given that history clearly dictates that each and every suzerain will eventually leave, it is prudent for Qatar to prepare for this eventual possibility.

Qatar’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export strategy is a good example of this; it’s a savvy economic policy, a good use of Qatar’s prodigious gas supplies, and it ties Qatar into the economic-energy nexus of a range of important states around the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2011 Qatar delivered over 2000 million cubic metres of LNG to Belgium, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, Taiwan, the US and the UK, while it delivered smaller quantities of LNG to Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Greece, Kuwait, and Mexico. This list includes four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and two temporary members. This is a useful set of countries with whom to have an energy relationship.

Countries like the UK, Japan, and China—who receive a significant percentage of their energy needs from Qatar—would be compelled to support the state if its energy security were threatened. In a volatile region where Iran frequently rattles the sabre, often threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, tying such important countries into Qatar’s continued prosperity is important. Similarly, whether Qatar wants support in international forums or with international investments, relations based on deep energy-interdependence can be a stepping stone.

This rationale can also explain to some extent Qatari-Egyptian relations in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution. Before the overthrow of Mubarak, the bilateral relationship was poor with Egypt blocking Qatari initiatives in the Arab League and in peace talks in Darfur, regardless of their merits. Yet now Qatar has restarted its relations using its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood to forge a close relationship with key actors in Egypt’s new elite. Moreover, Qatar has matched its rhetorical support with billions of dollars of aid for Egypt’s economy. By so overtly backing the new government in a time of crisis, for a short time at least the Qatari leadership can expect some combination of support for their diplomatic initiatives and plumb economic investment opportunities. While Qatar will not be buying the Pyramids or the Suez Canal as some scurrilous reports have suggested, it may have the opportunity to invest in the Suez Industrial Zone. Similarly, there are rumors that Qatar may obtain favorable exemptions from investment laws in Egypt in much the same way that it avoided certain property taxes in France.

While it may seem unlikely for a state to operate in such a way and to expect some kind of reciprocity, the Qatari perspective assumes otherwise. Policy is perennially made at the very top of the elite structure and the personal convictions, discussions, and agreements of the Emir can have profound effects on Qatar’s policies.

Indeed, as unfashionable as it is to note the importance of an initial humanitarian impulse, given the personalized nature of Qatari politics, it may have been of key importance when Qatar so assiduously and quickly supported the opposition forces in the Libyan uprising. Yet it is not the only factor in the equation. Aside from potential understandings of reciprocity, Qatar also boosts its image and soft power immensely by being so closely associated with the revolutionary movements, which is a potential boon, both externally and internally. And if Qatar can establish normal or perhaps privileged relationships with the new governments across the region, replacing the previously fraught relationships (i.e. with Mubarak’s Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya) then this too may bring economic benefits with greater trade and investment.

The highly personalized nature of Qatar’s politics and foreign policy is why the recent rumored changes in Qatar’s elite (allegedly involving the Emir and the Foreign Minister) are so important. While Qatar’s strategic direction has been set by the Emir, with Qatar resolutely focusing on this international arena, always seeking to involve itself where possible, there is still significant room for personal conviction to alter trajectories. For example, the Crown Prince of Qatar, the son of the Emir and his influential wife, Sheikha Moza, will sooner or later guide Qatar’s policies by himself and has been imbued with the Qatari vision. In the areas where he has had control of policy, notably in the sporting arena and Qatar’s food security project, he has pursued innovative and striking policies, striving to place Qatar in the midst of international discussions and events focusing these topics. Initial assumptions, therefore, can only conclude that while a future Emir Tamim may not have the zeal of his father or the current Foreign Minister to controversially propel Qatar into ever more international incidents, he is unlikely to retrench Qatar’s internationalist position.

Al Jazeera to open office in Riyadh 6, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Saudi Arabia.
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Reports indicate that Al Jazeera is to open an office in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

This is quite a change since the times when Al Jazeera was frequently railed against by the powers that be in the Kingdom for its ‘unfair’ reporting. This resulted in the removal of the Saudi Ambassador from Qatar from 2002 to 2008. He only returned on the understanding that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Kingdom be ‘reigned in’ to some degree. Most media commentators agree that this has happened; that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Kingdom has indeed since become much more sedate.

Al Jazeera to broadcast in India 4, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Qatar.
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Al Jazeera English is to start broadcasting in India where it has just been granted a licence to operate. This potentially gives Al Jazeera the opportunity to broadcast to 115 million households in the world’s second most populous country, increasing Al Jazeera English’s global audience by nearly 50%.

An excellent article on this subject notes that when ALE launched in 2006 they asked to operate in India but were refused by the Indian Home Ministry citing ‘security considerations’.


Al Jazeera shut down in Kuwait 13, December 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Kuwait.
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In reaction to the recent Al Jazeera coverage of Kuwait political troubles (see here) the Kuwaiti Government has closed down their offices in Kuwait City.

Al Jazeera are used to this. They have their offices shut down across the region from time to time. Typically, the Kuwaiti Emir will make a plea to the Qatari Emir, imploring him to get Al Jazeera to tone down their coverage. The Qatari Emir will insist that he has nothing to do with it. A few weeks or months later and after the dust has settled, the office will reopen.

There are two other possibilities, as I see it.

First, Kuwait might seek some kind of Saudi-eqsue agreement. Al Jazeera had a well deserved reputation for its harsh and somewhat salacious coverage of Saudi Arabia. This was at the time of generally poor and fractious relations between Qatar and the KSA. In agreeing to return a Saudi Ambassador to Doha for the first time in four years in 2008, Riyadh demanded that Al Jazeera’s coverage be toned down towards them, and so it was. There are rumours of a similar deal being done/worked out between Qatar and Egypt at the moment.

The problem for Kuwait is that they do not really have any leverage over Qatar. Their relations are OK generally; nothing really leaps to mind: there is no great reason for the Qatari government to acquiesce to a similar deal.

The second (related) possibility is that perhaps Kuwait might seek to form a quasi-coalition against Al Jazeera and Qatar. If they can get Egypt and say, Bahrain, on board – both with antagonistic relations to Qatar – then perhaps momentum will help them attract more countries to make a joint threat: ‘tone down Al Jazeera’ or we’ll all close our offices. It’s not as if all Arab countries will not be tempted to try to punish Al Jazeera.

It is also worth pointing out that this may not be well received in Kuwait. I would suspect that for the opposition in Kuwait, Al Jazeera is well-regarded and thought of as a useful megaphone for their views. ‘Once again’ they may well moan, ‘the Government is trying to stifle us’. None of this bodes well for the resumption of the relatively pliant and cooperative politics of recent months.

Egypt elections, Qatar & Abu Dhabi 29, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Egypt, Qatar.
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An interesting snippet from the Angry Arab.

Husni Mubarak visited Doha, Qatar after years of a feud between the two rulers.  (Of course, Mubarak stopped in Abu Dhabi first: the Emir of Qatar told me that Mubarak receives a blank check from the ruler of UAE in every visit–a blank check, literally).  Mubarak wants to make up with Qatar during the “elections” because he worries about AlJazeera coverage.  Unfortunately, his plan will work: Aljazeera’s coverage softened greatly after the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Arab rulers can make up while sharpening knives behind the curtain.

How has the Al Jazeera coverage of Egypt’s election been? Anyone..?

Al Jazeera shut out of Morocco 2, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, North Africa.
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Morocco is the latest (of many) countries to ban Al Jazeera from operating within its borders. The Ministry of Communication withdrew Al Jazeera’s accreditation for not undertaking “serious and responsible journalism” and following “numerous failures in  (following) the rules”.

The Communications Minister insisted that Al Jazeera systematically refused to be objective and sought to tarnish Morocco’s image.

These claims are strenuously denied by Al Jazeera.

The dispute centers around Al Jazeera’s coverage of Islamists in Morocco and their Western Saharan issues. Since the Casablanca bombing in 2003 killing over 40 people, AFP reports that over 2000 people have been arrested. The long-running saga of Western Sahara and the Polisario Front is a sore topic for the Kingdom and is a firm ‘red line’ over which reporting is all but banned.

Indeed, Al Jazeera was banned in 2000 and the Moroccan Ambassador briefly withdrawn from Doha over coverage of the issue. Relations were mended and in 2004 Qatar even brokered a hostage exchange between the Polisario Front and Morocco for the return of captured Moroccan troops. Releations worsened again in 2008 when Al Jazeera was banned from covering the Maghreb countries from Rabat and Al Jazeera’s Morocco bureau chief was convicted of “disseminating false information” regarding security forces clashes in Sidi Ifni.

Morocco’s banning of Al Jazeera is widely seen as a backward-step for the country which was, at one stage, slowly liberalizing its grip on social and political spaces. Now it joins its neighbors Algeria and Tunisia as countries with closed Al Jazeera offices; not necessarily a group of countries that Morocco wants to join.

Jordan behind Al Jazeera World Cup jamming 30, September 2010

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During the recent World Cup, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the opening game and seven other important matches was severely affected. The picture was intermittently lost, garbled and commentary changed languages.

It has been revealed that the jamming that caused Al Jazeera to lose its signal emanated from Jordan. The Guardian suggests that this could be an act of retaliation after a deal to show the World Cup on Al Jazeera  in Jordan fell through.

Initially, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were assumed to be the culprits given their antipathy towards Al Jazeera. However, The Guardian has obtained documents unequivocally showing that at least five instances of jamming came from a town north east of Amman, As-Salt (at coordinates 32.125N 35.766E if you want to be really precise).

Experts say the jamming was unlikely to have been done without the knowledge of the Jordanian authorities. “It was a very sophisticated case,” said one.

Al Jazeera won an exclusive pay-TV deal to show the World Cup matches to all Arab and North African countries including Iran. They charged up to £100 for the month’s subscription which fostered severe discontent.

On Qatari media 29, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Opinion, Qatar.

It’s hardly a revelation that the newspapers in Qatar are in a poor state. Too often filled with Ministry press releases and utter fluff, they are used as an example of the double standard when it comes to Qatari media: mostly free if you discuss other countries; wholly emasculated on domestic matters.

An article delivered to my Google Reader about a certificate given to a Qatari employee at the Movenpick hotel prompted this post.

Ali Abbas Al Khanji, a Qatari national working as a Bill Collector with the Movenpick Hotel Doha since March 1 this year has scored a perfect attendance. As a Bill Collector his job is to deliver invoices to customers and receive payments from them on behalf of the hotel. He is also assigned to follow up on pending issues and notify the Credit Manager of any failed collections. On August 29, the hotel awarded a Certificate for Perfect Attendance to Al Khanji.

Is this news: a meaningless certificate given to an employee for not missing work in the – hold the phones – 6 MONTHS that he has worked there? Granted, the fact that he is Qatari and hasn’t skipped work is something of a story, but they don’t pursue this tack (can’t imagine why).

Non-stories like this feed the cliché about the duplicity of Qatar when it comes to the media. Some of the criticisms are true and just. There is very little domestic criticism for Qatari leaders to deal with. The newspapers in Qatar know their red lines and they do not cross them. Al Jazeera is frequently lambasted for its harsh, investigative and uncompromising reports on other Arab governments and their almost absolute silence on matters in Doha.

On this last matter I disagree.

Firstly, Al Jazeera’s audience is the Arab world and beyond. I’m not too sure how much they care about what goes on in Doha. Instead, the audience, I’d have thought, would prefer to hear about what is happening in Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These are far larger issues than Qatar and are thus covered far more.

Secondly, what exactly happens in Doha that is interesting? I like the city but aside from traffic, there seems to be relatively little to report: not much happens. Some argue that Al Jazeera did not cover the recent mooted coup attempts but these were little more than summer rumors in Saudi and Jordanian newspapers. What other ‘dirt’ is there that Al Jazeera does not cover in Doha? They way that critics lampoon Al Jazeera one would think that there are countless fascinating stories that they simply pass up. I’m just not sure that that is the case.

Thirdly, there have been a few documentaries critical of Qatar over their treatment of domestic workers.

Despite this robust defence, I do realise that after the return of the Saudi Ambassador to Doha in 2008, Al Jazeera was muzzled vis-a-vis KSA to a large degree. Also, their tone towards Bahrain has manifestly calmed down over the last decade and more. Nevertheless, I am still a defender (of sorts) of Al Jazeera.

As for those that see Al Jazeera as some kind of terrorism propaganda HQ, all I’d say is that, as Kaplan put it, ‘Where you stand depends on where you sit’.

Al Jazeera up for International Emmy 15, August 2010

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Al Jazeera has been nominated for an International Emmy award for their coverage during the Gaza War.

Such an accolade may go towards bolstering its reputation. In the West it has a reputation, among some at least, for stoking Palestinian flames and an anti-Israeli stance. Those in the Arab world charge either the same or that it is simply an organ of Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Israelis to sue Al Jazeera 15, July 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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AP reports that a group of Israelis are suing Al Jazeera for $1.2 billion in New York for aiding Hezbollah. These 91 Israelis were wounded by Hezbollah’s rockets in the 2006 war. They suggest that Al Jazeera intentionally broke Israel’s military censorship rules and reported specific locations of rocket attacks in Israel allowing Hezbollah to more accurately aim their rockets.

I don’t like their chances.