Qatar – “soft power” could not save?

Ali Hajizade

Editor’s column


For some countries, at the end of the 20th century, “soft power” became an active instrument used by states to promote their foreign policy and their interests. Naturally, “soft power” was used, in varying degrees, and for a long time before then. For example, during the Cold war, the USSR and the USA were using the potential of “soft power” with varying degrees of success. However, the development of the means of communication and the Internet, on the one hand, introduced some corrections into the very essence and scope of “soft power”, and on the other hand, provided incredible opportunities for countries and powers that would not mind taking advantage of new opportunities.

For some reason, researchers and journalists, as a rule, highlight the experience and activities of large countries in this field. I believe that the most interesting examples and approaches can be found in medium and small countries. Large countries have great opportunities and, often, global goals.

If we examine the Middle East, we can see that several countries are building their “soft power” there. From the end of 1990 and until 2011-13, much was written and said about Turkish schools and universities opening in the most exotic corners of the planet. Many journalists and experts, uninformed about the nuances of the issue, perceived the whole infrastructure as the major part of the Turkish “soft power”. However, a couple of years ago, “the gloves were off”, and it became clear that the infrastructure, entirely, was created by the religious sect of Fethullah Gulen and serves the purposes of his movement, and not the Turkish state. It turned out that one of the largest countries in the region has almost no effective “soft power”.

While large countries of the region lavishly wasted their resources, carried out experiments (not always successful) in the field of “soft power”, or accepted their impotence in this matter, a small and ambitious, despite its size, Qatar was building its “soft power” all this time, based on its long-term and short-term prospects, as well as having a clear action plan.

Some people, who are unhappy with Qatar’s policy (there are reasons to be dissatisfied, it will be discussed below), say that “Qatar is the clan of Al-Thani and it is the Al Jazeera TV company.” Speaking about the soft power of the emirate, we cannot fail to mention Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera and Qatar Airways, perhaps, are the most recognizable brands of the country, they can also be called some of the most famous brands in the world. But Al Jazeera is not the only Qatari instrument of “soft power”, there is still such an organization as the “Qatar Foundation” created a year before Al Jazeera. There are a number of organizations and funds. In addition, there are a number of online media funded by Qatar, and used to attack the enemies of the emirate. Most frequently, they are used to replicate false propaganda directed against Saudi Arabia or creating a positive image of Qatar, and the Al Thani family in the eyes of readers.

There is a downside to Qatar’s “soft power”, which is in the close contact with a number of extremist organizations, such as “Hamas”, “Muslim Brotherhood” and a number of other more radical ones.

I think it’s appropriate to stop a bit on the activities of Al Jazeera. The television company was founded in 1996 by the decree of the then emir of Qatar. The television channel became popular through the exclusive materials and statements about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that it had broadcasted. Having at its disposal an impressive, almost unlimited budget, solid material and technical base and a strong staff, Al Jazeera by 2011 (by the beginning of the Arab Spring) had become one of the most popular television networks in the Middle East.

The second finest hour of Al Jazeera was when demonstrations started in a number of Arab countries. It was later called “The Arab Spring”.

In all fairness, it is worth noting that, in many respects, the success of Al Jazeera in these countries was promoted by local dictatorial regimes that blocked independent or opposition media and secular opposition in those countries. By suppressing the media, activists and journalists in those countries, they turned the Qatar Al Jazeera into almost the only source of alternative information. When the authorities of these countries tried to do something against Al Jazeera, it was already too late. For example, in Egypt, Al Jazeera acted as a mouthpiece of the Islamist organization “Muslim Brotherhood”, which was close to the authorities of Qatar. Also in Libya, Syria and Tunisia Al Jazeera had its own line. However, the “Muslim Brotherhood”, which came to power in Egypt, was overthrown by the pro-Saudi general As-Sisi, the Qatari-backed groups failed to overthrow the Assad regime, Libya split into several warring camps, and Tunisia chose a democratic path of development. We can say that Al Jazeera finished this battle “in the red”. There are also many provocative reports of Al Jazeera against Saudi Arabia. Qatari authorities consider Saudi Arabia their main opponent, I assume that the main goal of the Qatari “soft power” is to minimize the influence of Saudi Arabia in the Gulf region. It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia cannot boast of such an effective infrastructure of “soft power” as Qatar.

After the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera lost part of its audience in the Arab countries, and Qatar’s influence also suffered.

In 2013, Al Jazeera buys the “Current TV” (USA) created by former vice-president of the United States Albert Gore, for this media asset the Qatari side spent about $ 500 million. Thus, Qatari Al Jazeera entered one of the world’s largest telemarketers.

In April 2016, Al Jazeera announced the termination of its broadcasting in the United States. Despite impressive investments, the channel was unable to attract the necessary amount of audience. The number of Al Jazeera viewers in the US in the prime time did not exceed 30,000, which is an insignificant indicator for the United States. After the closure of the American channel about 700 employees were left without work. It’s strange that the managers of Al Jazeera did not take into account a couple of simple facts about the specifics of the US media market, namely: the low interest of Americans to news from outside the US and the existing TV culture, and the TV tradition in the American media market. Even the very name “Al Jazeera” sounds somehow unusual and certainly not American to the Americans. That was how the American epopee of Al Jazeera ended. Continuing to lose the audience, Al Jazeera suspended the work of the Turkish unit in May 2017. Despite the fact that Turkey and its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan were and remain one of the few allies of Qatar, and this is a country with 80 million, mostly, Muslim audience.

In an attempt to jump “over its head”, Qatar also shouldered the heavy responsibility of hosting the World Cup in 2022. According to Qatar, this should be a grandiose event, a kind of world triumph of Qatar. Of course, the World Cup is just another round in a major geopolitical game from the point of view of the Qatari leadership. The World Cup is aimed at strengthening the influence of Qatar and its “soft power”.

And the thunder!

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and broke off ties with this country. Following this, sanctions were also imposed against Al Jazeera and Qatar Airways.

I can imagine how long the neighbors of Qatar have been waiting for this moment. In general, the moment is chosen quite successfully, other people are in power in Washington, Saudi Arabia has concluded a major arms deal with the United States very recently, Al Jazeera continues to slide down, the issue of the fight against terror is more urgent than ever, against the backdrop of all this, Qatar is flirting with the worst enemy of the Arab world – Iran…

These are not the first disagreements between Qatar and its neighbors, but the heat of passion has never been so great. This time Qatar’s “soft power” could not give an adequate response to the attack of neighbors. Qatar has received some support from Iran and Turkey, but these countries cannot be considered as major players on the global information field.

What happened with Qatar showed that “soft power” is extremely effective when it is combined with the real power of the country. Neither the size nor the military power of Qatar, in this regard, are suitable for the role of a strong country.

Undoubtedly, the steps taken against Qatar by its neighbors will not be catastrophic for the country. But it is undeniable that they have caused a number of difficulties for the country, which are not only logistical, but also political and economic. In addition, Qatar’s “soft power” in the countries of the region was severely curtailed. I do not forecast the full sunset of Qatar’s “soft power”, but the fact is that it is no longer the same as before.

It is noteworthy that several other countries have tried to adopt the Qatari experience, including such as Iran and Russia. But copies rarely surpass the originals. For example, in the case of Iran and Russia, having created their copies of Al Jazeera, they immediately started clumsy, primitive propaganda, thus killing all chances of success of the projects still in the very beginnings. I assume, considering the circumstances, Qatar will not give up its “soft power” and will try to strengthen it in every possible way, and stop the decline. Time will show us whether they become successful.

Author: Ali Hajizade, head of “The Great Middle East” project

Twitter @AHajizade

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