Qatar banks on mastery of soft power to keep Saudi tanks at bay

The impending E222m ($261m) transfer of Brazilian footballer Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior has set the club he has played for since 2013, Barcelona (sponsored by Qatar), against his new employer Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), which is owned by Qatar. Barca and Spanish La Liga officials complain PSG has violated the ‘financial fair play’ rules of football’s European governing body UEFA. Other observers believe the world-record transfer – which is more than twice the size of the previous mega-deal – sends another signal: that Qatar is carrying on with business as usual in terms of projecting its soft power muscle to underline its status as a small state with world class (and World Cup) ambitions.

In London on 2 August, Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) chairman Dr Ali Bin Samikh Al-Marri was not inclined to disagree with British analysts who said the emirate’s dispute with its three Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) neighbours – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE – was rooted in Father Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani’s determination to plough an independent furrow. This approach challenged Saudi Arabia’s tendency towards regional hegemony and built up Doha’s soft power to a formidable extent, most notably with the creation of Aljazeera Media Network; it also saw Qatar cultivating an independent foreign policy that included developing a close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE in particular detests. All this falls within the framework of an inalienable human right, Al-Marri argued, that even the smallest state should be free to determine its own direction.

Human rights have taken a leading role in Qatar’s campaign to resist the demands of the GCC-3 and key ally Egypt that Doha changes its ways (GSN 1,040/1 and 13). A bevy of human rights lawyers and activists, journalists’ representatives, media professors and other concerned citizens descended on Doha on 24-25 July for the NHRC’s expensively-mounted Freedom of Expression: Facing up to the Threat conference. (GSN should declare an interest: its editorial director was invited to attend, expenses paid, by the NHRC.) The GCC-3’s demands that Aljazeera should close were roundly attacked during the two-day event. While critical of Qatari policies, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth was most scathing of “open long-term Saudi support for the teaching of Wahhabism” and the Saudi-led coalition “indiscriminately killing Yemeni citizens”. Roth expressed the views of many, arguing that “in a region known for its stultifying official media, Al Jazeera was a breath of fresh air… [and] a dictator’s nightmare”.

The Qatar crisis has created some unusual alliances. Veteran National Union of Journalists (NUJ) activist, now International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) president Jim Boumelha was described as a “driving force” behind the NHRC event. NUJ Ireland acting general secretary Seamus Dooley read a closing statement as if it was a trade union congress declaration. Many of those who visited Aljazeera took part in an impromptu demonstration in favour of freedom of speech as the cameras rolled. All this despite the fact that journalists’ unions are still banned in Qatar; an Aljazeera branch of the NUJ is tolerated, but only as it is based in London.

Al-Marri’s arguments that the GCC-3 are applying unlawful ‘collective punishment’ against Qataris and others affected by the crisis have considerable substance – and the emirate is widely perceived to have taken the moral high ground in a complex dispute. A 2 August announcement that some expatriates will be allowed permanent residency is a first for the GCC, underlining Qatar’s pioneering image – even if the draft law affects only the children of Qatari women married to non-Qataris and expats who have provided “outstanding services”.

The crisis’ first weeks have proved a moment for Qatar to forge a stronger national identity, just as other recent crises, such as the Yemen conflict, have allowed younger generation leaders to refashion ideas of national duty. Qatar since 5 June has defined itself by the Tamim Al-Majd (Tamim the Glorious) image, a romantic take on the young emir by Qatari artist Ahmed Bin Majed Al-Maadheed. This has won spontaneous backing among many locals and corporations have taken note – like mobile operators Ooredoo and Vodafone Qatar who changed their network names to Tamim Al-Majd.

The question in the coming months will be whether Qatar can withstand the costs and other impacts of the GCC-3 embargo, and whether it can use international law to its advantage. Its multi-billion dollar network of international relationships mean its plight cannot be ignored. But can the projection of soft power trump its antagonists’ far superior hard power? That may depend on a negotiated settlement being possible. Al-Marri suggested that, while “the leadership is explicit that we can’t close down Aljazeera”, there was room for negotiation about the channel’s “performance”. Sources in Doha tell GSN that Aljazeera has already started to change in its editorial line towards GCC states. So far, however, the signs are the crown princes of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia want much more. The region is on the brink as it plunges into the hottest months of the year.

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