Beirut: Successful in more ways than many imagined during the past decade, especially through its full-fledged support to the immensely influential Al Jazeera television network, the Qatari quest for regional leadership suffered significant setbacks as the conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere, altered Doha’s maverick policies.
In fact, Qatar lost ground to Saudi Arabia, whose views were articulated on Al Arabiya and other Saudi-owned networks, precisely because Riyadh showed patience.
Consequently, it was safe to post that the waning in Qatari diplomacy, ostensibly articulated through powerful media outlets and support to key Islamist movements, was neither accidental nor unexpected.
Prejudicial accusations were levelled against Al Jazeera for distortions of the truth, with several employees in Egypt quitting amid concerns over the Doha-based managers’ alleged biases towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although Al Jazeera denied that its coverage lacked balance, the station’s alleged pro-Brotherhood stance was clearly linked to Doha’s policies. Similarly, the generally pro-Saudi Al Arabiya network confronted matching accusations, ostensibly displaying anti-Brotherhood positions, which drew the ire of Egyptian Islamists.
Facebook and Twitter assertions were advanced that Al Arabiya broadcast falsified videos and Photoshopped images used in its coverage that, naturally, was quickly denied too.
There was little controversy over the far more aggressive coverage between the two networks that, without a doubt reflected the political competition between the two countries.
Likewise, there was also little doubt that both Riyadh and Doha intended to use their financial might to shape media output, which sought large audiences.
This Al Jazeera-Al Arabiya competition notwithstanding, Doha was anxious to place fresh markers on its media checker-board, now that Abdul Bari Atwan, an outspoken Palestinian journalist and long-time editor-in-chief of London-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper was forced out of his position. Atwan antagonised many governments, including its Qatari backer, with radical views, which explained his departure.
Atwan’s parting editorial spoke volumes. Al Quds Al Arabi, he affirmed, “always confronted occupations, corrupt and repressive dictatorships and foreign hegemonies… it has always championed the oppressed, the repressed and the usurped.”
Still, he did not identify the oppressive powers that, presumably, fought tooth and nail to impart their views and guide their nations.
To say that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were staunch competitors would indeed be an understatement. Still, while both were established supporters of Islamists in the past, Riyadh reversed its stand in early 2011.
It concluded that Arab masses rejected extremism even if Doha sought to guide its own protégés. Both backed Syrian opposition forces and transferred material as well as financial support while they loosened traditional controls over media outlets.
Still, while Qatar was surprised by some of the setbacks, Saudi Arabia stood to capitalise on its gains. Indeed, the dramatic ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi stood as a stark illustration of how much of a setback the development was for Qatar, which extended at least $8 billion to Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government since 2011.
Riyadh countered with a $5b grant, followed by $3b from the UAE and $4b from Kuwait. Doha’s relatively large 2012 financial investment notwithstanding, and preoccupied with a succession transition at home, Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani reportedly told Al Jazeera that Qatar supported the will of the Egyptian people and that he viewed Cairo as a leader in the Arab and Islamic world.
Nevertheless, this declaration was accompanied by a provocative religious decree (fatwa) issued by the exiled Shaikh Yousuf Al Qaradawi, a Qatari protégé and frequent Al Jazeera guest, who called on his fellow Egyptians to “support correctness and restore President Mursi to his legitimate post.”