The move of Saudi Arabia,the UAE and Bahrain against Qatar was swift. It was launched on the back of a fake news report placed by hackers on the website of Qatar’s official news agency. That allowed the three Gulf states to launch a media campaign led by Saudi- and UAE-controlled TV channels.
Qatar was simultaneously accused of hosting Hamas; supporting the Muslim Brotherhood; backing Hezbollah; having close ties with Iran; sowing the seeds of sedition inside Saudi Arabia, and all the while maintaining intimate relations with Israel. If you can do all those things at the same time, you are indeed a magician.
The incoherence of these claims did not matter. The Saudis and Emiratis were addressing two audiences: the western one, which sees conflict in the Middle East through the exclusive prism of fighting terrorism; and the Gulf audience, which sees red when any of its leaders talk to Iran or Israel.
On Monday, a set of measures were announced that are unprecedented in peacetime: cutting diplomatic relations; closing all the borders, sea lanes and airspace; banning citizens of all participating states from travelling to Qatar, and banning all Qataris and residents of Qatar from travelling to those countries. These are measures not even used in a warzone. They violate all the norms of international aviation.
The pretext offered for all this was the desire to cut the funding of terrorist groups and radical Islamist ideology. And yet the most significant demand had nothing to do with this: it was to close down the al-Jazeera media network. This has been eagerly sought by many Arab states, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, ever since the original news channel launched in 1996.
Al-Jazeera transformed the Arab media from a natural extension of the intelligence and security agencies to an independent sector whose values were transparency, accountability and democracy. This is exactly what so many Arab regimes fear.
Al-Jazeera is very familiar with the charges Qatar now faces, because they were made against it: al-Jazeera was accused of aligning itself with Hezbollah, supporting Islamist groups and having intimate ties with Israel.
The most important event al-Jazeera covered was the Arab spring in 2011. This was a political earthquake, driven by the dreams and aspirations of a new generation, born under dictatorship but raised in the age of the internet. Young people sought to turn those dreams into reality, taking to the streets, using the power of networking and learning from the experiences of other youth groups from around the world. The dynamic was neither partisan, sectarian nor ideological.
Toppling regimes proved to be the easiest step. For these were ageing regimes whose structures had been infested with rampant corruption. Establishing consensus and rebuilding the state on democratic foundations was much harder. Young people alone were not up to the task. Counter-revolutionary forces, funded by the entire wealth of the Gulf, regained control.
The dividing line was wealth. Revolutions erupted in the poorer nations such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, while the rich countries stood behind the counter-revolution. The three countries that have imposed a siege on Qatar funded the 2013 military coup in Egypt and have propped up the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They have also funded and armed General Khalifa Haftar in Libya and waged an open war on the forces of the Arab spring.
Qatar distanced itself from these policies. Qatar is not a democracy. Yet it was not hostile to the Arab spring.
This was the reason behind the first Gulf escalation against Qatar in 2014, when the same three countries withdrew their ambassadors from Doha and threatened to close their borders. They demanded Qatar support the Sisi regime, fight the Muslim Brotherhood and curb al-Jazeera’s independence.
The crisis did not escalate, as Barack Obama’s administration was not enthusiastic about such conflicts. By contrast, the current situation is being seized upon by Qatar’s foes. In his tweets, Donald Trump claimed ownership, saying the moves to isolate Qatar were the fruits of his address to more than 40 leaders of Muslim nations last month.
The current dispute has nothing to do with funding terrorism or radical ideology and even less to do with any official Qatari leaning toward Iran. This is a resumption of an old fight: drying all the fountains of independent conscience in preparation for a restoration of the old order in the Middle East. This time, however, the old order has tough new security powers, created by the war on terror and the support of a president who has jettisoned all the US’s values.
But are we going to fight terror with more persecution, or learn lessons from history? The fact is that dictatorial and corrupt regimes were the incubators of extremism in the region. Decades of suppressing liberties and violating human rights provided the oxygen for jihadi groups. While these regimes flouted the rule of law, they still enjoyed US support. As a result, the Middle East continues to be engulfed by conflicts and instability.
We should not rebuild the Middle East on the foundations that generated terrorism. We should align ourselves with a future of youthful dreams. These may often be utopian or unrealistic. But at least we would be walking forward, rather than stumbling backwards.
Wadah Khanfar is a former director general of the al-Jazeera television network.