Doha, Qatar. While the rest of the Arab world holds its breath, Qatar is putting on a diplomatic show like no other, as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the USA get in a real mess locally.
Saudi Arabia and its friends in the Gulf have the grace of a ballerina wearing hobnailed boots. Weighed down by their own sense of self-importance, these petulant male-dominated regimes are used to getting their own way and few will stand up to them. Even their friends in the West, fuelled by greed and super arms deals, are too afraid to rein in the corrupt overlords who rule their people with a rod of iron.
Kuwait has now presented Qatar with a list of demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt after all four cut ties with the tiny state on 5 June. One of the demands is for Qatar to shut down Al-Jazeera. To those of us with long memories, this will come as no surprise, because Saudi Arabia simply cannot tolerate criticism and it has a track record of attacking unfavourable media exposure.
Back in 1980, for example, the government in Riyadh threatened governments, politicians and TV corporations across the globe if they dared to broadcast a TV docudrama, Death of a Princess. The Saudis tried to intimidate Britain with economic sanctions, including the withholding of oil supplies, and recalled their ambassador from London. In the US, oil-rich companies threatened to withdraw sponsorship and advertising from TV stations if the programme was broadcast. A Middle East state attempting to gag the world? Yes, that is exactly what Saudi Arabia was doing.
The broadcast did go ahead and revealed details of the 1977 execution of Princess Mishaal Bint Fahd Bin Mohammed, a granddaughter of the then Saudi king’s elder brother. She was executed in public for adultery, as was her alleged lover Khalid Mahallal.
Saudi officials were outraged. More than a decade later, in 1996, the BBC was forced to close down its Arabic section following pressure from Riyadh when the Saudis again sought to suppress a documentary exposing more executions in the country. Around 250 journalists lost their jobs
But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the BBC-trained, highly skilled journalists were bankrolled by the then Emir of Qatar and launched the media phenomenon that is Al-Jazeera. The subsequent heroic journalism of the Arabic section set the gold standard in war reporting back in 2001; Al-Jazeera was the only broadcaster inside Afghanistan after the horrific events of 9/11 and the launch of the “War on Terror”.
What the world came to know as the Arab Spring, though, which came to define both the Arabic and English sections of Al-Jazeera, with its coverage of the revolutions. As dictators were toppled in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, the network gave a live, round-the-clock voice to the protestors that they would never have enjoyed under the regimes which had brutalised them. This desire for freedom sent shock waves across the region, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Qatar these days, is giving the Saudis and their allies a masterclass in international diplomacy. Whether it will do Emir Tamim and his government any good or not remains to be seen, but they deserve our admiration and support for standing up for freedom of thought; emphasising the ongoing importance of Palestine to the Muslim world; and defending the integrity of Qatar’s sovereignty.