The return of Qatar and the Al Jazeera case. The demon of free media in the Middle East

Ghazal Poorhasan and Alessandro Tomat

The Concerns of the Arab countries over the possible behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the near future is once again a drive to unite the Gulf cooperation council members. The restoration of relations with Qatar, just two weeks before the end of the presidency of Donald J. Trump, illustrates the concerns of the Arab monarchs about the policies of the new US administration towards Tehran. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), founded in 1981 to face the threat coming from the Iranian new post-revolutionary regime, is today an even more confident entity after gaining a new ally, Israel, which is sharing the same concerns over its own national security. An alliance which gives both sides the opportunity to raise their voices louder and more openly against any international agreement with Iran. The fact that Qatar has long been a missing factor in this equation, and that its blockade by the Arab states in 2017 resulted in an opposite outcome than the initial intention of the GCC members plus Egypt (tying up the Qatari-Iranian relations even stronger than before) and its recent return to its Arab fellows, may be seen as a demonstration of renewed harmony and unity among the Arab monarchs which are seeing Iran as threat to their national security. Nevertheless, the restoration of the broken trust between Qatar and the other Arab monarchies is a great challenge. The crack is indeed already visible, and the fact that the small sheikhdom managed to survive a heavy blockade from its neighbours and walk back in without complying with any of the conditions that had been imposed, gives Qatar an even more confident position in this Arab unity, with the ability to possibly step out whenever things are not going in the same direction as its own national interest.

In this situation, there is one issue among the others that seems to be potentially unresolved and that has previously been the cause not only for regional attrition, but also for an international outcry. One of the demands of the Arab states for putting an end to the blockade of 2017 and normalizing their relations with Qatar was the ban of the network Al Jazeera (along with other media outlets), refused by Qatar with the support of the international community. One of the most watched broadcaster in the Arab world was seen by the other Arab monarchies as a tool propaganda for political Islam that was contributing to the instability of the region. As much as these allegations are debatable, it is true that such a powerful, non-strictly controlled media has indeed the potential of being instrumentalized by one party and to undermine support of the regional governments, which makes it a potential threat.

This is an understandable concern for the establishments, given fact that Al Jazeera gave coverage to the demonstrations for democratic change during the Arab Spring of 2010, which then resulted into the fall of more than one government in the Middle East. More recently, however, something happened that might refocus, if not mitigate, the concern of the regional governments over non state-controlled media. During the Iranian uprising of November 2019, the authorities ordered an immediate shutdown of the internet networks to control the flow of information. However, despite this attempt, many videos of the protests and arrests filmed by bystanders have leaked into all the major international news outlet, which has also clearly shown the-impossibility of controlling information.On the other hand, Arab audiences like any others are smart enough to bypass any web blockade and thus gain access to international and non-government controlled media content, simply by using VPN networks.

These are the reasons why, in the integration process of Qatar into the GCC, the Al Jazeera issue might no longer be a pressing one. It is true that media coverage in the Middle East is traditionally watched closely (if not controlled) by the establishments, however in the new age of information this concept of state-controlled media has proven to be obsolete, and if this was to be a lesson well learned, instead of killing the information, there might be an opportunity for the local governments to start producing countering content, and put an end to the demonization of the uncontrolled access to information.

(You can read the last article by Ghazal Poorhasan and Alessandro Tomat here)


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