Fisk: Qatar Crisis has Nothing to do with Al Jazeera and Everything to do with War in Syria

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The present Al Jazeera is the orphan stepchild of the earlier BBC version which the Saudis head-chopped from the air waves more than two decades ago (Getty)

06 July 2017 | Robert Fisk | Independent

“Babies – they are just babies,” a veteran Al Jazeera man roared last weekend about the Gulf states. “They are childish, they are infantile, they are tribal.” And I could understand his anger. Even Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, the present Emir of Qatar, has never had much love for the satellite television channel.

It was his father Hamad’s toy. Indeed, when Hamad paid a formal visit to the Doha campus of Al Jazeera, Tamim – soon to overthrow his Dad – remained ostentatiously at the outer door. Now, of course, thanks to Saudi Arabia, Al Jazeera has become a symbol of Qatar’s national sovereignty.

Press freedom advocates have been lathering up their fury for the undemocratic Saudis, demanding that none shall touch the sacred studios of a Qatari channel that has in fact been pretty miserable in its reporting of Gulf Arab affairs over the years – not least events in the highly undemocratic emirate of Qatar itself.

Last year – and early this year – Al Jazeera dispensed with many of its staff. And over the past twelve months, freelance journalists paid by the Qataris were told they were off the payroll. In the last four weeks, the Qataris have invited them back – only to discover that they were already on the Saudi payroll.

So the beacons of press freedom in the Gulf burn not as brightly as we might wish. Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel – and its “Live” affiliate, which so openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – were so harsh in their condemnation of Field Marshal President Abdul-Fattah al-Sissi of Egypt that they gave up any shred of impartiality. Several “Live” cameramen turned out, after Sissi’s coup d’etat, to have been members of the Brotherhood itself.

But that’s not really the point. The Qatar “crisis” – the inverted commas are necessary because this is a crisis as fake as the claims the Saudis are making against Qatar – is about taming the one Gulf nation which has the potential to outshine the Saudi kingdom and dictate the outcome of the Syria war.

And it may well end in the destruction – real if not acknowledged – of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the GCC alliance of six Arab states which was nursed into life by the United States amid two earlier and very real crises: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution. It will be the ultimate irony if a mad American President’s “go-for-’em-boys” speech in Riyadh last month brings this about.

Trump’s boastful promise of lots of “beautiful” weapons for Qatar – followed by his Twitter post condemning Qatar for financially supporting “terror” – were just part of the comedy show for Americans who have grown used to their Commander in Chief’s insanity.

But for the new Warrior Chief of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, defence minister and now Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MbS), it provided the power to command the GCC to do his bidding. Trump hates the free media. Saudi Arabia hates free media. And we forget – and the BBC seems to forget – that it was Mohamed’s uncle, King Fahd, who put paid to the first version of an independent international channel in the Middle East. The doomed BBC Arabic Television was put together between the BBC and a Saudi giant called the Muwarid Group.

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