Political and personal issues clash in two "visions" of the Middle East. Doha wants reform and greater freedom. For Riyadh and Abu Dhabi sees threats to monarchies and their domination. Qatar rejects Saudi demands and prepares for new sanctions. The escalation of the dispute undermines diplomatic and international relations.
Doha (AsiaNews) – The crisis between Arab Gulf states is due to “political and personal" issues that separate two "different visions" about the Middle East and the Arab world, this according to Jamal Elshayyal, a British journalist who has worked for Al Jazeera English covering the main topics for the past five years, from the Freedom flotilla and the so-called Arab springs in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen to the military coup in Cairo in 2013 and the failed coup in Turkey last year.
For him, Qatar "believes in greater reforms and liberties” whilst Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (EAU) consider the pro-democracy movements that emerged in recent years "a threat to monarchies and their domination" of the region. "A crisis could threaten the stability and security in the last peaceful area of the Middle East, the Gulf, amid international inaction," he said.
According to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar supports violent Islamist extremist movements in the Middle East and the West; above all, it maintains diplomatic and trade ties with Iran, the Saudis’ main enemy. For some analysts, the ongoing row is the final battle between Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood for dominance in the Islamic world.
A month after the row began, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt met in Cairo yesterday and voted to extend diplomatic and trade "restrictions" on Qatar. This follows Qatar’s rejection of the ultimatum of its Arab neighbours. The latter includes 13 demands, such as closing Al Jazeera, which Doha deems unrealistic and impractical.
For the foreign ministers, Qatar does not understand "the seriousness and gravity of the situation." The Saudi foreign minister said further steps would be taken against Qatar at the appropriate time.
"We're not doing this because we want to hurt Qatar, we're doing this to help Qatar," Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir said. Qatar’s response was swift, accusing its neighbours of aggression and of insulting the leaders and people of Qatar.
Al Jazeera is currently promoting a press freedom campaign. From the broadcaster’s headquarters Jamal Elshayyal spoke to AsiaNews, noting that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been marching along different paths for a while.
Their policies show a "profound difference". Although the gap seemed to be declining with Riyadh "following King Salman’s rise to throne, it remained unchanged with Abu Dhabi."
"Of course, the severity and depth of the crisis may have caused surprise and amazement,” said the journalist (pictured in Makkah), “because only two days before the crisis a Saudi minister was received in Doha with full honour for a forum. But what strikes the most is the rapid escalation, an unstoppable collapse that has not followed the timing and ways usually practiced in diplomatic circles and in the context of international relations."
The visit by the US President Donald Trump and the renewed alliance between Riyadh and Washington, after the difficulties with Obama, is one factor in reviving Saudi leadership claims in the region, another is the rise of a new gung-ho generation of Saudi leaders.
The demands imposed on Qatar, including shutting down the satellite channel, "surprised us and we strongly reject it as far we are concerned,” Jamal Elshayyal. "It is surprising that in the 21st century a government asks for the removal of a TV channel, actually a satellite network that was the first to talk about many facts about the region and the world. It almost makes me laugh that such censorship comes from a country that does not even allow women to drive."
"We have received the solidarity of many colleagues and media from all over the world,” he added. “Many have joined our campaign for freedom of the press and freedom of thought. We are not political. we provide information.”
“We regret the fact that there has been little support from governments, even in the West, and the international community. We expected more attention from America and Europe against these draconian and outrageous demands . . . but nothing has been done to counteract or criticise them."
The issue revolves around the different visions Qatar and Saudi Arabia (along with the Emirates) have about the region’s grassroots movements, which have been calling for a while for reforms, modernity, greater democracy and freedom.
"In Doha, we are interested in following these currents and give them room without repressing them. The idea is to find a way to favour a democratic model for the Arab world, different from the one recognised in the West. This path requires small steps. By contrast, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh view this as a threat, hence the repression, which also struck us, guilty of giving voice to those who have no voice."
Until now, the diplomatic and trade crisis has not had a big impact on the emirate, with the exception of a certain rise (15%) in prices of some basic foods, like milk and eggs.
"Qatar’s gross domestic product is among the first in the world and is able to absorb the hit,” Elshayyal said. “In addition, people have rallied in the country, not only Qatari citizens, who are a small part, but also foreign workers. More and more people have put a sticker on the back of their car with the hashtag #weareallqatar. The same is going on in social media.
“Oil and gas giants continue to do business as before, so the economy will not feel any repercussions, whilst Turkey has taken the Saudi place in supplying food and basic necessities at a slightly higher price."
"The real risk is the threat against one of the few stable places of the region. I think it is in everyone’s interest, including the governments of Rome, London, Tehran and the Arab countries, to ensure that this crisis is solved as soon as possible to ward off another conflict like those in Libya, Iraq and Syria." (DS)