July 07, 2017
It’s probable that few of us in the West have much time for either Saudi Arabia or Qatar. There are exceptions, of course. Our governments treat them as useful allies in the disturbed Middle East, Saudi Arabia especially because of its hostility to Iran, Qatar for providing the USA with a huge military base. Our defense industries love them, for there are few better customers for the planes and weapons they produce; it’s been like that for ages. The now discredited chaps who ran FIFA did very well out of the bungs and other goodies the Qataris offered in order to be granted the right to stage the 2022 World Cup. Actually, lots of people have done very well out of these theocratic dictatorships, far too well to care about human rights issues, the persecution of dissidents, the subjugation of women, and so on. No doubt we should care more, but governments reckon that Saudi Arabia at least is a force for stability; its extensive royal family may be bastards, but, as used to be said of Latin American and African dictatorships, they are at least “our bastards.”
The present row between Saudi Arabia, backed by Egypt and most of the Gulf States, and Qatar took many by surprise. One cause is Qatar’s cozy relationship with Iran. For this reason the row plays well with those in the U.S. administration who regard Iran as enemy No. 1 in the Middle East and consider the nuclear deal brokered by Russia and negotiated by the USA and the E.U. as one of the worst blots on Barack Obama’s record. This being so, Washington, London, and (perhaps) Paris are not at all unhappy to see the Qataris given a smack in the chops.
However, one of the demands made of the Qataris should itself be slapped down. Saudi Arabia is determined that Qatar should close its Al Jazeera television network. They hate it because Al Jazeera has been a critic of the Saudi regime, highlighting some of its iniquities. Egypt feels the same way about Al Jazeera, accusing it of giving favorable coverage to the Muslim Brotherhood. The brutal Egyptian dictatorship of President Sisi has arrested and imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists.
But Al Jazeera is not like RT (formerly Russia Today) or Iran TV”a mere propaganda outlet. On the contrary, its English-language news and comment service comes closer than anything else in the Arab world to providing what we traditionally expect of a free press or free TV and radio media. I watch it quite often, and find it both informative and”generally”fair. The Saudi demand that Al Jazeera should be closed down shows just why it must be defended. All authoritarian regimes hate a free press because, first, they hate and are afraid of criticism, and second, they are determined to control news and opinion. A free press and a dictatorship are incompatible.
Of course, there is much wrong with the media in our Western democracies. Any honest journalist will admit that. We make mistakes, sometimes of fact. We make hasty judgments. Our comment is often partisan, and partisanship leads to bias, even sometimes to slanted news coverage. President Trump may be right to say he hasn”t been given fair treatment from establishment newspapers and TV channels; certainly few have been willing to give him the benefit of any doubt. But I don”t think he has been worse treated than many previous presidents, and, as he has shown, he is ready and able to hit back, seeking support in the wider realm of public opinion. I don”t mind that. In truth I rather enjoy his tweeting. It adds to the gaiety of the morning news. But he should accept that it’s the duty of the media to hold politicians to account, not to give them an easy ride or uncritical support. Politics is a rough old game, a contact sport, and anyone who enters the political arena should know this and be prepared. I think it was Harry Truman who said, “If you don”t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen”; and Truman himself was on the receiving end of fierce and fiery criticism. He too was quite happy to sock it to his critics in robust manner.
Public criticism of power is resented and hated by almost all governments in the Middle East. Only Israel is a sufficiently mature democracy for its politicians to accept that they must accept such criticism, no matter how much they dislike it or may think it unfair. Elsewhere journalists are viewed with suspicion, dislike, even hatred and fear by the men in power. In Turkey, President Erdogan, in his progress toward establishing a dictatorship, has been throwing them in jail and even closing newspapers.
Al Jazeera, like every newspaper or media company, has its faults, but it is a force for good in the Arab world, and a rare one. That is why it must be defended and why the American administration should tell Saudi Arabia, clearly and unequivocally, to drop its demand for the TV network’s suppression. In many areas we can do little”though perhaps more than we attempt”to prevent abuses of human rights in the Middle East, but this is not the case here. So it’s a test of the West’s willingness”especially of Washington’s willingness”to stand up for the liberty of free expression, a liberty without which talk of advancing freedom is no more than empty words.