Ruling a country with huge gas and oil reserves, the Qatari leaders have been trying to pursue a media diplomacy using the profits they reap from the energy sales, an arrangement using the rich economy to serve a campaign to boost Doha’s soft power both in the region and in the world.
If the aspects of Qatar’s soft power are brought in spotlight, it could be made out why some Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia are so upset with the small Persian Gulf Arab emirate. In fact, what in recent months were cited as reasons behind the political and economic spat of Saudi Arabia with Qatar have roots in a behind-the-scenes and deep struggle, which glaringly reflects itself in Riyadh and its allies’ fear of the growing Doha soft power and influence across the Muslim world.
How does Doha use soft power in foreign policy?
1. It is inevitable that in today’s world the media with all of their forms, mass and social, stand up as pillars for attempts to build diplomatic relations. The Al Jazeera Media Network is one of the leading instruments through which Doha leaders promote their country’s soft power. The foundation of Al Jazeera on 1 November, 1996 was a groundbreaking move taken by the Qatari leaders among the largely state-owned and tribe-centered Arab world’s media. The media giant has been producing a wide range of programs for a wide range of social spectrums of the Arab world in a professional manner and meeting high international media standards.
The network also branched out into religious material by producing religious shows, an arrangement that gave rise to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Doha-based Egyptian Islamic theologian, as an icon on the Qatari network. His weekly show Al-Sharia and Al-Hayat (sharia and life) had several million viewers not only in the Arab world but also across the world. Furthermore, the Aljazeera Center for Studies organizes various conferences every year in the Qatari capital, gathering together Arab, Western, Israeli, and other experts, as well as representatives from Islamist and even radical groups for debating selected issues. Now the network enjoys widespread acceptance and viewership across the region, something drawing anti-Al Jazeera hostility and criticism of the Saudi leadership.
2. Over the course of past decades, the Qatari leaders have cultivated educational, sports, and cultural plans and organized events of this kind in a bid to present a distinguished picture of Doha worldwide. Adopting pro-Western and juvenile policies, taking pro-democratic gestures, and lobbying for hosting the 2022 World Cup and a set of other demonstrative actions were meant to bolster a splendid picture of Qatar. Presently, hundreds of thousands of construction workers are hired by the Qatari government to prepare state-of-the-art stadiums for the 2022 tournament.
Certainly, Saudi Arabia, a country whose women are even banned from driving cars, does tolerate such a soft power and gesture of democracy in its neighborhood and inside the bloc of six-nation (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar has also been providing aids since the 1990s to a wide range of foreign parties and even kept adding to the aids during the recent years. Aid receivers include the war-hit Lebanon and Gaza. For example, Qatar funded reconstruction projects in Lebanon following the 34-day Israeli war on the country. The “thank you Qatar” banners once were observable across different Lebanese villages in south. Additionally, Qatar has pledged to help reconstruct the Gaza infrastructure that was enormously demolished by Israeli aggressions.
3. Excluding the Iran-Qatar disagreement on Qatar and its Al Jazeera’s approach to the war-ravaged Syria, the Tehran-Doha relations have been friendly and warm. In the recent diplomatic crisis, Qatar has put fingers on the matters sensitive to Saudi Arabia like developing good relationship with Iran. The remarks by the Qatari emirs on the significance of relations with Tehran are indicative of the Saudi regime’s sensitivity to friendly Iran-Qatar ties. Saudi officials deemed the Qatari statements as an official Qatar alliance with Iran. The Islamic Republic is the only foreign country that has established cultural consulate in the state of Qatar.
4. Many Arab world political and ideological dissenters and elites from Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, as well as leaders of Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, which are blacklisted as terrorist groups by the Saudi-led Arab bloc, are based in Doha. They have been residing in Qatar before and after the Islamic Awakening era (2011) and Doha’s hosting such figures has brought Qatar a mix of positive and negative reactions from various Muslim countries.
5. Qatar has hosted many meetings among different parties, including Lebanon’s March 8 and March 14 alliances, Chechen groups, Palestinian factions, Sudan government and the separatists, and Yemeni groups. This Qatari mediation has largely aroused the ire of the Saudi leaders who boast being “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”– a title given to the incumbent Saudi king– and being big brother to the tiny Persian Gulf sheikhdoms.
6. Qatar is a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, a top enemy to the Saudi regime in the region. Saudi Arabia has always viewed Qatar as a rival with soft clout that mainly reflects itself in money and media. Over time, the UAE came on board the anti-Qatari Saudi camp, blamed Qatar in many Muslim Brotherhood-related cases, and lashed at the Doha’s leaders for funding the Islamic group that spreads across the Arab world and challenges the authoritarian regimes.
Indeed, destroying Qatar’s soft power is Saudis main goal as it will lead to the emirate’s submission to superior Riyadh. Saudis seek to neutralize Qatar’s soft power that for years drove Al Jazeera to support the Muslim Brotherhood and provoked anti-government protests during the revolutions in North Africa and West Asia.
Saudi Arabia has now come to the understanding that its polices have failed and measures the regime has taken to fuel wars and support terrorist groups in West Asia are backfiring , while Qatar’s investment on media has been successful. Taking this fact into account, it become clear why the Saudi-presented 13-demand list to Qatar to end crisis include immediate shut down of Al Jazeera and halting funding for some other websites such as Arabi 21, Rassd News, Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, Middle East Eye, and Mekameleen news network.