Gulf blockade target isn’t Qatar, it’s Al Jazeera: Burman

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Earlier, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. in 2001, Al Jazeera’s Arab network was aggressive in its reporting of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, particularly about civilian casualties. This infuriated the administration of then-president George Bush.

In 2008, after I took over in Qatar as managing director of Al Jazeera’s English network, one of my first courtesy call visitors was an officer with the U.S. military command stationed not far from my Doha office.

With 10,000 U.S. troops, it is the largest American base in the Middle East, and it is a symbol of Qatar’s complicated relationship with the U.S. government. I had the opportunity to remind this officer that, according to recently released confidential documents, president Bush in April 2004 actually wanted to bomb the Al Jazeera offices but was persuaded out of it by then British prime minister Tony Blair. We soon switched to another topic.

For Qatar, Al Jazeera has been a key part of its efforts to place the small Gulf state on the map. The global visibility that Qatar has garnered — including its successful bid to host soccer’s 2022 World Cup — has caused resentment among its neighbours.

Coming from Saudi Arabia, the charges against Qatar are hypocritical. Most countries in the Gulf region have some sort of ties with Iran, and Saudi Arabia in particular — not Qatar — can be accused of being responsible for creating terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh, also known as ISIS.

The dispute erupted shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump’s buoyant trip to Saudi Arabia. It is widely believed that Trump implicitly gave the Saudis the go-ahead to make a move on Qatar. In tweets since his return home, he has attacked Qatar for supporting terrorism, even though his own State Department and Pentagon have called for compromise.

In a powerful essay in The Guardian newspaper, Wadah Khanfar, former director-general of Al Jazeera, dismissed the Saudi claims and highlighted what was at stake:

“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 the 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.”

One of the most perceptive observers of the region is David Hearst, formerly of The Guardian and now editor of Middle East Eye, a widely respected website of news and analysis. He has done extensive reporting on the drama and warns that it has real potential to get out of control:

“A full siege is in place. This is no longer a ‘spat.’ It is looking as if the object of this preplanned campaign is regime change in Qatar.”

If that is attempted, the Middle East is certain to erupt.

Tony Burman is former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News. Reach him @TonyBurman or at tony.burman@gmail.com .