The fourth annual Gulf Studies Forum opened on Saturday, December 2 in Doha. The yearly gathering has become one of the most important events on the calendar not only for the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, which hosts it, but for the worldwide community of scholars of the Gulf states and their societies. This year’s conference had the added significance of being devoted to the theme of “The Gulf Crisis: Regional and International Contexts and the Role of the Media,” with the discussions focusing inevitably on the crisis which has gripped intra-Gulf relations since mid-2017.
Delivering the opening remarks, ACRPS Researcher and Chair of the Gulf Studies Forum Committee, Marwan Kabalan, reminded the participants that the decision to focus on the media pre-dated the recent crisis. Ultimately, the way the crisis unfolded served to emphasize just how prescient that decision was, with both traditional and social media acting as representatives of Gulf governments. Despite the decision by three Gulf states to impose an embargo on Qatar, the themes chosen for the fourth Gulf Studies Forum found a willing audience in researchers around the globe, 250 of whom applied to attend the meeting. Kabalan’s introductory comments to the conference were followed by a keynote address delivered by French political scientist Bertrand Badie.
Badie offered a general reading of the world order as it stands since the Cold War, suggesting that today’s Gulf crisis was one consequence of the present international arrangement. One feature of the new system since the Cold War, said Badie, was the lack of a world hegemonic superpower. As Badie reminded the audience, the last time the US convincingly and unilaterally won a war was in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Instead of a complete free-for-all in terms of international relations, however, the current world order relied on a complex network of regional alliances that forced the United States to act in concert with its allies in other places. This was a phenomenon, said the speaker, which could be seen in regions across the globe where the power of the nation-state was significantly undermined. Referring not only to the Gulf Crisis but to the Arab region more broadly, Badie also made reference to how the Arab Spring had worked to undo the power of authoritarian states as well as the very fabric of the social contract in countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The convoluted international relations which the recent crisis brought to the fore, explained Badie, served to undermine the previous “Schmittian model”—a reference to the theorist Carl Schmitt—of rationalizing the factors which determine a country’s foreign relations.
International Relations of the Gulf States
Following Badie’s keynote address, the sessions moved into two parallel streams. The first of which focused on the fixed theme of the international relations of the Gulf states. The first two international relations sessions covered “The Gulf Crisis: Causes, Patterns and Contexts,” addressed by Gerd Nonneman, Majed Al-Ansari and Mehran Kamrava; and “The Gulf Crisis: Economic Consequences and Legal Aspects,” addressed by Khalid Rashed Al-Khater, Naser Al-Tamimi, Yusuf Hamad Al-Balushi and Mohammed Al-Khulaifi. In parallel, two panels covered the involvement of both traditional media and social media in the present Gulf crisis. These included, “Media Ethics and the Gulf Crisis,” which brought together Noureddine Miladi; Deborah and Brannon Wheeler; and Nawaf Al-Tamimi.
Gerd Nonneman’s presentation focused on how the pre-crisis relations between the Gulf states were driven by a common objective of preserving monarchical rule and bolstering their shared interests. The growing divide between the Gulf states, said Nonneman was in fact a consequence of changes to the wider regional and global environments. Nonneman was followed by Mehran Kamrava, who explained that the exclusive focus on the traditional threat posed by Iran, which threw them off track from the more fundamental dangers of non-traditional threats to identity which, the speaker suggested, were even more existential to the continuity of the Gulf states. One particular consequence of the short sighted exclusive focus on traditional threats and “zero sum game thinking”, said Kamrava, was the antagonization of Iran and its isolation from the rest of the regional order, which had not advanced security for any of the Gulf states.
On the next panel in the series, Khalid Bin Rashed Al-Khater explained that the lack of economic integration across the GCC—previously held up as a hurdle to greater cooperation—had in fact immunized Qatar from any serious consequences due to the embargo imposed by Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in June, 2017. In contrast said Al-Khater, a Qatari economist, the blockade on Qatar spurred domestic economic development. On the same panel, Naser Al-Tamimi in fact suggested that the decision to embargo Qatar could in fact blow up in the faces of those leading the blockade. While Qatar was able to leverage its assets to grow economically—even continuing to supply the UAE with natural gas—countries like the UAE appear to foreign investors as unreliable and unstable. Yusuf Al-Balushi, of Oman, was the final speaker on that panel. Al-Balushi addressed the potential for growing ties between the Sultanate of Oman and Qatar, and decried the fact that most Qatari investments in Oman so far have tended to concentrate in the real estate sector and not in more long-term investments like manufacturing.
In the following panel, Mohammed Al-Khulaifi explained that while Qatar had avenues open to international arbitration, that the political realities meant that intervention by the UN Security Council remained highly unlikely.
Media and Social Media in the Gulf Crisis
The above panels were mirrored by two panels focusing on the role of the media and social media in the Gulf crisis. These were “Media Ethics and the Gulf Crisis,” bringing together Noureddine Miladi; Deborah and Brandon Wheeler; and Nawaf Al-Tamimi. A second panel, “The Media and the Making of Gulf Public Opinion,” included Khalid Al-Jaber; Liqaa Makki Al-Azzawi; and Kamal Hamidou.
Noureddine Miladi, speaking on the first of the parallel stream of media dedicated panels, condemned what he described as the breakdown in moral standards adhered to by media institutions in the countries leading the blockade in their attempts to lead a smear campaign against Doha. Miladi highlighted a number of individual media outlets for special consideration. These included Saudi-dominated print newspapers such as Okaz and Al-Riyadh. Miladi contended that the willingness of Saudi and Emirati media to stray into ethically questionable and contentious material was not matched by Qatari media, which instead chose to “fight a clean fight”.
Miladi was followed by Deborah and Brandon Wheeler, whose joint presentation highlighted how attempts by Saudi media to capitalize on Islamic motifs to shame Qatar have had no tangible impact. Nawaf Al-Tamimi, speaking on the same panel, explained how the group of countries leading a blockade of Qatar used a diversity of methods to lead a smear campaign against Doha, including propaganda through traditional channels as well as shaming through social media.
Qatari journalist and former Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Khalid Al-Jaber discussed the “manufacture of consent” in the Gulf states, a process which he said placed media institutions in the GCC member states in a contentious place at the crossroads of government aims, audience needs and state bodies. Given the lack of robust mechanisms for what Al-Jaber called “political communication,” Gulf citizens relied on the media to a great extent to understand the future direction of their governments.
For his part, Al-Azzawi explained that, since its outbreak in June, the Gulf crisis has become central to “new media” and the social media ecosystem across the Gulf. In Al-Azzawi’s view, new media was inextricably linked to the nature of the crisis. Kamal Hamidou was the final speaker on that panel, whose paper highlighted the role of the media in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt in shaping public opinion against Qatar, both domestically and in the wider Arab region. Hamidou paid particular attention to how media in the blockading states made use of vague suspicions of Qatari funding for terrorism to batter Doha in the Arabic press.
Closing off Day One of the 2017 Gulf Studies Forum, four prominent Arab media personalities shared a platform for a special panel. These included Sheikh Abdulrahman Bin Hamad, CEO of Qatar Media Corporation and Yasser Abu Hilalah, Marwan Bishara and Salah Negm from Al-Jazeera. The panelists in the concluding session explained the importance of maintaining professionalism in the midst of the 2017 Gulf Crisis, which pitted countries with previously warm relations against each other.
Sheikh Abdulrahman explained to the audience that Qatari media were committed to the same principles of propriety and professionalism that they had always maintained, even as the country was being attacked from abroad. In contrast, Marwan Bishara explained how Western audiences were left in shock when the governments of Arab countries demanded the closure of the Al Jazeera offices. For his part, Abu Hilalah, Director of News at Al Jazeera, assured the audience that the embargo on Qatar would ultimately serve the cause of media freedom in the Middle East. Instead of the previous situation in which Saudi Arabia was able to pressure Al Jazeera, via Qatar, to sugar coat its coverage of the kingdom, the new order of affairs meant that the broadcaster would now be able to show Saudi Arabia’s foreign policies for what they really were. According to Abu Hilalah, this was already visible in the broadcaster’s coverage of the humanitarian disaster resulting from the Saudi-led war on Yemen.