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Media Escalation Complicates GCC Crisis Mediation Efforts

In spite of months of intensified efforts to deescalate tensions among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the past few days have witnessed a clear dwindling of hopes that the GCC crisis is on the verge of a thaw, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Reciprocal media attacks between the two states have made this trend abundantly evident. Although Kuwait has been acting as an arbiter in the dispute, this uptick in tension is an indicator that the neutral party’s mediation attempts have not been fruitful. After more than two and a half years of mitigating the crisis’ consequences, it can be assessed that the GCC is reaching unprecedented territory. Given current regional leadership, this suggests that any resolution to the crisis will be superficial in nature, thus allowing significant differences to continue festering.

In a recent speech to the European Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir delivered strong pronouncements concerning Qatar. “Qatar supports and finances extremist groups such as Hezbollah, and we have problems with Qatar because it interferes in our affairs,” Al-Jubeir said. “We hope Qatar will change its behavior and support for terrorism,” he added.[1] These statements were also accompanied by an aggressive Saudi campaign, both through its official media outlets and pro-Saudi social media accounts. In addition, Al-Ikhbariya (an official Saudi news channel) broadcasted a report that described Qatar as the “prodigal son of the Gulf and the Arabs and the mobile bank of the mullahs.”[2] At the same time, the UAE-based, Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya announced an upcoming documentary titled “Sons of Doha” that will discuss Qatar’s domestic issues. Outside of formal state channels, Twitter too has been an important platform used by individuals on both sides to attack one another.

Concurrently, Qatar’s state-funded Aljazeera network incensed Riyadh after it announced the making of a new investigative documentary to focus on the holy city of Mecca.[3] In the aftermath of the 2017 GCC crisis and blockade (imposed by KSA, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) on Qatar, due to which Qatari citizens were largely prevented from performing the holy pilgrimage, Qatari media outlets promoted calls for the internationalization of the Two Holy Mosques.[4]  Such a suggestion is considered a red-line for Saudi Arabia, especially when considering that Iran has been calling for such a change for a long time.

The current escalatory media rhetoric of 2020 is taking place only months after mutual statements from Saudi and Qatari officials indicated a possible breakthrough to the crisis. As recently as December 13th, for the first time since the imposition of the blockade, Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, said that there in fact was a communication channel between Doha and Riyadh. He also stressed that both parties had reached an agreement on basic principles for dialogue. However, he cautioned, “It is too early to talk about real progress in the dialogue with Saudi Arabia.”[5] On his part and for the first time, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said on December 10th that negotiations were ongoing in order to resolve the crisis with Qatar.[6]

Before the end of 2019, Al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti Newspaper, quoted statements from Kuwaiti officials saying that there had been progress in the negotiations between Riyadh and Doha. This progress was due to both parties’ agreement on three points: to prepare public opinion for a calm atmosphere; not to insult leaderships of the two countries  in either traditional or social media, and to refrain from any hostile statements from officials against the two countries.[7]

The present media escalation is a clear indication of the stalemate in the reconciliation efforts undertaken by Kuwait. Moreover, U.S. sources have indicated that Kuwaiti leadership is frustrated by the sudden increase in tensions after months of intensified efforts of de-escalation.

For a number of domestic and regional factors, as well as U.S. pressure to form a coalition against Iran, Saudi Arabia showed interest in containing and resolving its dispute with Qatar. The latter in turn showed a willingness to discuss differences and work toward a possible resolution. However, reports indicated that the UAE was not in agreement with the efforts being taken toward rapprochement between Riyadh and Doha. Renewed efforts to contain the widening dispute may resume in the coming months, but given the degree of public differences and media attacks between the disputing GCC states, it is unlikely that any resolution will address the conflict’s root causes, making any rapprochement merely cosmetic.

 

References:

[1] “From Europe, Al-Jubeir demands Qatar again to change its behavior,” Rai Alyoum, January 21, 2020 https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%A7-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%8A%D8%B7%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8-%D9%82%D8%B7%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%AC%D8%AF%D8%AF%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D8%AA%D8%BA%D9%8A/

[2] Al-Ekhbariya TV Twitter account, “Evidence of Qatar’s involvement in supporting terrorism,” January 21, 2020 https://twitter.com/alekhbariyatv/status/1219722381998030849?s=20

[3] Al Jazeera TV Twitter account, “Ma Kafi Adham, Soon,” January 21, 2020 https://twitter.com/AJArabic/status/1219595551001448448?s=20

[4] Saudi Arabia: Angry reaction over Qatar promotion to internationalize the Two Holy Mosques,” BBC, February 7, 2018 https://www.bbc.com/arabic/inthepress-42973239

[5] “Qatar FM: Too early to talk about real progress with Saudi,” AlJazeera, December 16, 2019 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/qatar-fm-early-talk-real-progress-saudi-191216060536330.html

[6] “Mediation efforts with Qatar ongoing but better to keep it away from spotlight: Prince Faisal,” Saudi Gazette, December 10, 2019 http://saudigazette.com.sa/article/584673

[7] “Saudi Arabia and Qatar: Three steps forward,” Al-Qabas, December 18, 2019 https://alqabas.com/article/5735759-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%B8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%B1%D9%89-%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%84%D9%85-%D8%AA%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%B0-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%88%D9%82%D8%B7%D8%B1-3-%D8%AE%D8%B7%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%85