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TRNN Replay: Gilbert Achcar: From Al Jazeera to US Central Command, Qatar conducts a complex foreign policy

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. One of the stories, the Middle East uprisings, and now particularly the conflict in Libya, is the role of the television network Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is primarily financed by the royal family of Qatar out of the capital, Doha. Now joining us to talk about Qatar and its role in Middle Eastern politics is Gilbert Achcar. He teaches at the Oriental and African Studies Department at the University of London. Thanks for joining us, Gilbert.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Thank you, Paul. Pleasure.

JAY: So talk a little bit about Qatar, the emir, and the role that he plays in Middle Eastern politics.

ACHCAR: This is a very peculiar kind of political behavior for this statelet, this emirate of Qatar, which basically is hedging its bets, its funds, in, you know, investing everywhere. And–but, of course, the most solid kind of connection that they have is with the United States, through the fact that they host one of the most important air bases in the region, and the forward headquarters of CENTCOM, the central command of the US Armed Forces, in the Udeid base in Qatar. And they even fund to a great extent–they contribute to funding this US military presence over their territory. And this base is–I mean, this forward command is decisive in monitoring US military action over the whole region. On the other hand, the state of Qatar has diplomatic relations with one of the few Arab states in this category, and it has been very proud, recently, getting the green light for organizing the world cup which aside from the crazy aspect that it means in terms of expenditure, in terms of building insane number of stadiums and the rest in the country, aside from all that, is politically meaningful in the way that they would be hosting an Israeli team. And that would be a premiere in the Arab world, of having such games with an Israeli team in an Arab country.

JAY: At a time when the Palestinians are calling for boycott and disinvestment.

ACHCAR: Absolutely. And on the other hand, the same state of Qatar develop friendly ties with Iran, even though the WikiLeaks statement attributed to their minister of foreign affairs about the fact that the Iranians lied to us and we lied to them can be regarded as a true description of reality. They give, even, funds directly or indirectly to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. And so, therefore, they really, you know, play this bizarre, absolutely contradictory game on the face of it which has no sense except in hedging the funds. To all that we should add that they have very close ties, funding ties, with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood is an important political force behind the political message of Al Jazeera.

JAY: Al Jazeera Arabic.

ACHCAR: Al Jazeera Arabic, yes, indeed. I’m speaking of Al Jazeera Arabic. And also, you know, it’s on Al Jazeera that the Egyptian theologian who is considered as the spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood has his program and regularly preaches there. So it’s–I mean, on the face of it it’s completely contradictory, but actually this is, you know, a way for this small emirate to, you know, guarantee its own security.

JAY: We visited Doha not a few months ago. And when you go there, there’s so little sense of any security, like police or army in the streets of Doha. You really get the feeling Qatar has no enemies. I guess that’s what the strategy is. You know, you make deals with everybody.

ACHCAR: Yeah, although one, I mean, shouldn’t be fooled by the fact of not seeing. I mean, of course, this is not Israel; this is not a militarized state and the rest. But we are speaking of very artificial states when we speak of Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, and even Kuwait to a lesser extent. We are speaking of countries where the so-called nationals are hardly 20 percent of the population, and 80 percent are expatriates without any rights. You know?

JAY: Yeah, or essentially guest workers from the Philippines, other countries that have work like a kind of slavery. They’re mostly not allowed to bring their families. They have to leave after two, three years. If they happen to have children born in the country, they do not get citizenship.

ACHCAR: Absolutely. All this is right, and you can read a lot about that in reports by human rights organization like Human Rights Watch or the rest. They have had several reports on the condition of migrant workers in the Gulf, in those monarchies, in the Gulf monarchies.

JAY: That being said, there’s–Al Jazeera Arabic and English have really played an important role in terms of development of the democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia and other countries. To a large extent it’s been their coverage that has given a certain amount of protection to the demonstrators. People believe that the regime have been tougher for them to use violence, at least up until Gaddafi [inaudible] somehow this must also be part of the emir of Qatar’s agenda, which puts him in conflict with a lot of the other regimes. What’s his interest there?

ACHCAR: Yes, it’s undisputable that Al Jazeera played a positive role in the democratization of the Middle East, and even in the creating the premises, and even fueling, in a sense, one could say, by reporting the facts, the ongoing uprisings. So this role has been played. And that’s also due to the fact that you have also this range of political forces represented in the people who intervene on Al Jazeera who go from people who are on the left, who are known left-wing figures, like Palestinian leader Azmi Bishara, to Egyptian theologian I was mentioning, Yusuf Qaradawi. So you have this broad range. And the fact that also this range of forces was involved in many of the uprising we have seen, contributed to Al Jazeera giving a good coverage of what happened in Tunisia, what happened in Egypt, and several other countries, where we see the limitations is when you get closer to the Gulf Cooperation Council. Their coverage of Bahrain has been denounced in the other Arab countries as being quite skewed, because here the emirate is part of this council, this club of monarchies in the Gulf, and therefore this is a limitation they can’t really go beyond.

JAY: I mean, what you’re talking about specifically is not critiquing in their coverage the Saudi intervention in Bahrain the way they are critiquing the other things taking place.

ACHCAR: Yeah. I mean, even in reporting the whole thing, they gave much more voice to the regime than–and much less to the opposition than what they did in other countries, like Egypt or Tunisia. So there was clearly a double-standard here, and that’s the limitation. And, of course, now, about Libya, the fact that Qatar is among the very few Arab states who are willing to even contribute militarily to what is happening [inaudible] and the kind of, you know, attitude they have there about the Western strikes. Although, again, I think there is enough political astuteness for them to nevertheless try to report in as much an objective way as possible the news, because they are engaged also in a competition. They’re in competition with the other important Arab satellite channel, Al Arabiya, which is Saudi-funded.

JAY: When I watch reports by some of the Al Jazeera journalists, it verges on cheerleaders for the Western intervention, which reflects the Qatari government’s position.

ACHCAR: Well, you’re certainly speaking about Al Jazeera the English channel.

JAY: I’m talking about Al Jazeera English, yes.

ACHCAR: Yeah, whereas I watch the Arabic channel, and there it’s, let’s say, more nuanced and more balanced than what you depicted, if only because, you know, the Arab populations, even though they, you know, feel a lot of sympathy with the Libyan uprising, have, you know, strong reservations–and one can understand that–when they see the spectacle of this armada of Western forces using the kind of weapons that have been used on Iraq twice, in ’91 and 2003, and this reminds people of a lot of things. So they have also to convince. I mean, the fact that even the secretary general of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa, had to come out criticizing the killing of civilians by Western strikes, I mean, is telling. So of course they have to equal that. They can’t completely ignore that.

JAY: At some point, people are going to say, if you’re supporting these democracy movements almost everywhere else, you’ve got to start supporting them in Bahrain. You’ve got to start supporting them in Saudi Arabia. And then eventually people are going to say, what about Qatar?

ACHCAR: Yeah, although, I mean, countries like United Arab Emirates and Qatar are countries where to have uprisings of the kind we have seen is something very difficult to imagine because of this specific dimension, that is, the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants have absolutely no rights and are just expat workers [inaudible]

JAY: So unless we ever see an uprising of guest workers, I know that’s very [inaudible]

ACHCAR: We have seen, we have seen, we have seen over the years, in the United Arab Emirates, in Kuwait and all that, we have seen the movements of strikes, we have seen forms of struggle by South Asian migrant workers, who live in appalling conditions, who are paid absolutely miserable wages. We have seen that.

JAY: And then we’re going to have to see just how Al Jazeera covers this in Qatar or not. I know when I was there I pointed out to an Al Jazeera journalist that we had seen a Predator land at the American Air Force base outside of Doha, and I said, “That’s a really good story. Why don’t you guys go find out where that Predator just came back from? Because it would be rather explosive news if it had just been in Pakistan, for example.” And the journalist looked at me as if I was a little nutty and said, “Not only would we not report on a Predator being there; we’re not supposed to report on whether there’s an American base outside of Doha.”

ACHCAR: Yes, absolutely, absolutely.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Gilbert.

End of Transcript

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Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.