By Romany Shaker*
Tensions between the Gulf states and Qatar developed into an outright feud last June as a result of Doha’s drift toward Iran, which led the Saudis and their partners to impose a boycott and cut off air, sea and land routes to Qatar. Instead of responding positively to a demand that it cut ties with Tehran, Doha defiantly restored full diplomatic relations with it.
Now, the battle between Qatar and the quartet of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has broken out on a new front: Dueling media coverage of the protests in Iran, with Doha taking the side of the regime and the quartet backing the protesters.
“Iranian youths will no longer accept suffering and starvation, while the murderers and terrorist mercenaries of the regime are enjoying the wealth of the Iranian people,” wrote Ahmad Al-Jarallah, editor-in-chief of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah.
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi media figure, wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper: “The Iranian people harbor a genuine hatred for the regime.”
Meanwhile, Al-Sayyed Zahra, a columnist for the Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khalij, opined that the uprising of the Iranian people dealt a “fatal blow” to the Qatari strategy of aligning itself with Tehran’s project in the region. Zahra expressed hope that the events in Iran will awaken the Qatari regime and make it return to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) fold.
However, Qatari-funded Al Jazeera has aired statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and covered rallies organized by Tehran. Gulf critics have denounced Al Jazeera’s one-sided coverage of the protests in Iran, which signals a major shift from its role as an advocate of popular protests during the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and the 2009 protests in Iran.
Syrian-American analyst Oubai Shahbandar told Arab News: “I remember in 2009, Al Jazeera English was the go-to channel for people in the West to follow the Green Revolution in Iran and to get the latest updates. Nowadays it really does seem that, more often than not, (Al Jazeera) has become the go-to channel to get the Iranian regime’s viewpoint on the ongoing uprising.”
Shortly after the Gulf Quartet launched its campaign to isolate Qatar, Al Jazeera made public overtures to Tehran. In July, executives from the network and from Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) signed a cooperation agreement emphasizing “the need for using the media to create an atmosphere of peace, friendship and convergence.”
The move was severely criticized in Arabic media. Saudi Arabia’s Al-Riyadh daily opined in a Jan. 2 editorial that the Iranian protests “may end the suffering of the people who were burned by the flames of the mullahs’ regime through its proxies in Lebanon and Yemen.”
The reaction of the Saudi media echoes the words of the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said in a May 2017 interview: “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”
The tone of UAE officials and news sites has been tough but less severe, with a focus on urging Tehran to reconsider its costly involvement in the region. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash tweeted that Iranian leaders should “put the internal interest before Tehran’s adventures in the Arab region.” He added: “The interests of the region and Iran lie only in internal construction and development, not in antagonizing the Arab world.”
Nonetheless, UAE-based prominent political science professor, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, tweeted: “The continuation of internal pressure and the mounting of external pressure mean that the days of the clerical regime in Iran are numbered.”
In Bahrain, where Iran has stoked unrest, columnist Faysal Al-Sheikh, writing on Jan. 2 in daily Al-Watan, denounced pro-Tehran Bahrainis who are silent in the face of Iranian repression. “Now that the Iranian people are rising up against this tyrannical regime, we can only wish them success in overthrowing the tyrannical dictator,” he wrote.
Qatar and Iran are not the only targets of Gulf criticism. Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Al-Tamim, former deputy head of Dubai Police and General Security, slammed Turkey via Twitter for supporting Tehran. He wrote that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “incites against Egypt and defends Iran. They don’t go together well.” The general said in another tweet: “Erdogan is despised among Arabs since he is the enemy of the nation.”
The connection between Qatar and Turkey is that both have become the chief allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group designated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a terrorist organization. For example, Qatar and Turkey host several key Brotherhood figures who fled their homelands.
Similarly, relations between Ankara and Tehran have recently warmed significantly in the midst of Turkey’s authoritarian and anti-Western evolution. One strange illustration of these renewed ties is the case of Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who recently pled guilty in a US federal court to orchestrating a multibillion-dollar scheme to help Iran evade American sanctions with the help of Turkish banks in 2013 and 2014.
This deep polarization between the Gulf states and Qatar has grown out of an already-troubled relationship, which Doha seriously aggravated by interfering in the internal affairs of other Gulf states, supporting extremists, and drawing closer to Iran.
For years, Qatar sought to enjoy the benefits both of membership of the GCC and close relations with Iran and its proxies. Now, it is time for Doha to carefully reconsider the Gulf’s growing concerns over Iran’s behavior in the region, and side with its Gulf allies to end the most serious rift in the GCC’s history.
• Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter @RomanySh