Zoheir Al Mokh, an Iraqi international relations expert, was the guest speaker at the ACRPS weekly academic seminar on Wednesday, 20 December. Al Mokh’s presentation focused on the “Cultural Dimension of the Gulf Crisis”.

One remarkable feature of the 2017 Gulf crisis, said Al Mokh, was the unprecedented involvement of what could only be called “cultural features” into the conflict between member states of the GCC. Al Mokh recounted how the first decade of the third millennium were a period when Qatari leaders could dream of turning Doha into a new power base capable of competing with other regional capitals.

Said Al Mokh, some of the policies adopted by Qatar in pursuance of this ambition included Doha’s willingness to engage in (often informal) alliances with actors and networks which often transcended boundaries. Often, the willingness of the Qatari government to build these alliances was unrelated to economic or strategic objectives, but rather formed a part of what could be called the “identity politics” played by Qatar. The “capital” which Qatar accrued in this way, said the speaker, was more important at this stage of history than traditional military prowess or geostrategic vantage points when influencing regional affairs. In building its network of informal alliances with non-state actors, Qatar was reaffirming its position within an (Arab) cultural sphere. As a result of its alliances, Qatar was able to leverage its power to become a mediator in domestic political disputes across the Middle East region.

One crucial and highly visible step which the country took in the furtherance of its cultural influence was the establishment of the Al Jazeera broadcasting network. Through it, Qatar was able to break out of the straitjacket imposed on media discourse by Saudi Arabia, which had earlier been unable to create a media climate; Al Jazeera was in fact “totally novel” in the Arab region, offering a uniquely insightful and revolutionary approach to press freedom. Finally, said the speaker, Doha was able to leverage Al Jazeera and the rest of its cultural capital in overcoming the “sectarian fissures” which had provided the fuel for a long-running “cold war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead, said Al Mokh, Qatar was using its clout in the cultural sphere and “soft power” to further dialogue and mediation between conflicting parties.