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A New Arab Cold War?

by on April 1, 2014

In March, 2014, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew their foreign ambassadors from Qatar in what is now being dubbed the new ‘Arab Cold War’. The main reasons for the action are Qatar’s failure to implement a November 2013 agreement not to back
“…anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals – via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media…”
(BBC, 2014)

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In a last ditch attempt the foreign ministers from the countries met in Riyadh in order to persuade Qatar, however even after marathon talks of over nine hours, no commitment from Qatar was forthcoming (Kuwait Times, 2014).

Influential countries in the GCC such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain have been calling for a strengthening of economic and military ties. For the most part Qatar is resisting this integration and is often seen as the Wildcard in by the GCC based on its foreign policies which back populist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and as well as the wider Arab Spring.

In fact foreign policies’ of the other GCC countries and Qatar has been diverging steadily over the last 15 years. For example more recently in Syria, both Riyadh and Doha are backing the opposition however Riyadh has favoured the western backed secular Syrian National Coalition, whereas Qatar has favoured the exiled Syrian Brotherhood. The Qatari state owned Al-Jazeera satellite news channel has also faced criticism for being a propaganda tool and being a platform for critics of Gulf monarchs and their allies. As a result, Saudi Arabia closed down local Al-Jazeera offices (The Independent, 2014).

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Based on the five core components of public diplomacy; listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy and international broadcasting , the latter has been the preferred choice of Doha. Whereas the US propaganda largely failed through Arabic and Farsi broadcasts in the Middle East, Al-Jazeera has successfully been able to connect with the masses on the streets of Arab nations. Although the station is state owned it has claimed editorial independence and based on its unique perspectives it has become an unprecedented phenomenon in the Arab world.

However the channel has faced criticism for being a propaganda tool of the government and being a platform for critics of Gulf monarchs and their allies. As a result, Saudi Arabia closed down local Al-Jazeera offices .

It is claimed by some, when necessary editorial independence can be manipulated by the state which came to light in the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010. One of these cables quotes US ambassador Joseph LeBaron who states ‘Al Jazeera’s ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish. Al Jazeera remains one of Qatar’s most valuable political and diplomatic tools’, in another cable the US Embassy states the channel ‘has proved itself a useful tool for the station’s political masters’ . These factors provide a plausible premise upon which the government supported the formation of the channel. There are (limited) examples which support government coercion, for example 2012, Al Jazeera’s director of news stepped in to ensure a speech made by the Emir at the UN was given coverage on the English speaking channel despite strong objections from staff.

 

Saudi Arabia threatens to block Qatar borders

The current Saudi strategies are unlikely to coerce Qatar’s assertive, independent-minded foreign policy into taking a different position however alternative policies include economic sanctions, and restrictions on airspace and land crossings . Regarding the latter, the only border Qatar has is with Saudi Arabia which means all imports by road by default have to pass through there.
Qatar is taking countermeasures in the form of seeking mediation through third party countries such as Jordan. The Amir’s recent trip was the first official visit to Amman which raises many questions about the seriousness of the visit and its core objectives. Third party mediation is perhaps one of the few tools Doha has as its disposal and is also listed in Article 33 of the UN Charter . Although Jordan refused to mediate, what is of more interest to Amman is the number of Jordanian expats in Doha which total over 200,000 people. As a consequence Amman may be inclined to view the crisis through Doha’s perspective.

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Qatar’s foreign policy over the years has angered many of its neighbors which when combined have an estimated population of a hundred million, Qatar as a tiny nation with less than a quarter of a million natives, is therefore seen as wielding influence which is far greater than its size and worth. To exasperate matters further, other key regional players such as Turkey are also seen to be working much closer with Qatar at the expense of other GCC countries.

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Diplomacy has two main types which include traditional and conference diplomacy. The former refers to frameworks with permanent bilateral representation at its core but may also features ad hoc multilateral diplomacy. The latter is a more recent innovation where diplomats are appointed to a body and not a state and formal decision making takes place through procedures such as voting.

Upon analysis the current GCC structure neither falls into traditional or conference style diplomacy. This has perhaps encouraged Doha to act unilaterally on decisions which it feels cannot be negotiated. Integration amongst countries takes time however this is likely to stall if each nation pursues its own interests at the expense of the group.

Qatar has been able to cultivate its soft power through modern technologies (internet and satellite), communication, transportation and trade. Its greatest soft power success story has been through Al Jazeera, which has been successful in generating state reactions due to its prominent role in Arab society. The dynamics of the region highlight how the media revolution, initiated by Qatar has affected the role of soft power on politics in the region. It is natural for Saudi Arabia to feel threatened because their traditional state media apparatus have become weakened and are no longer able to control the flow of information to their citizens. This gives rise to a new Arab public which is susceptible to Qatari soft power.
The success of Qatar’s soft diplomacy can be attributed to the three basic factors including context, conception and content. It can be argued that the Qatari government has excelled in the art of public diplomacy and global communications by ensuring messages always have a context related to their audience, a sound conception of public diplomacy’s aims and objectives and finally producing content which is consistent with the target audience’s beliefs and values. By combining all three of these factors they have been able to excel and surpass their rivals in the media game through Al Jazeera and on the state level through foreign policy implementation. This provides a context to the crisis which encourages Qatar to act unilaterally without any qualms or fear of retribution. Qatar demonstrates rather well how the technological imperatives of globalization and its maturity can reduce the limitations of geographically and demographically challenged countries by offering them new tools to further public diplomacy.

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