Sunday, 3 December was the second day of the 2017 Gulf Studies Forum, the fourth in an annual series of academic conferences hosted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and which has become the leading venue of academic discussion on issues pertaining to the GCC and its member states. The panels within the Forum are generally divided into two parallel streams of panels, the first of which is always devoted to the international relations of the Gulf countries, while the second theme is given over to a distinct topical theme each year. This year, with the Gulf Studies Forum taking place in the midst of an unprecedented crisis in intra-Gulf relations, the second set of panels was devoted to media and communications, which have played a role in driving a wedge between Qatar and its neighbors.
How did Regional and Global Powers Deal with the 2017 Gulf Crisis?
Speaking on the first International Relations panel, "Regional Approaches to the Gulf Crisis," were Murat Yesiltas ("Making Sense of Turkey's Strategy in the Gulf Region"), Luciano Zaccara ("The Iranian Factor in the Gulf Crisis") and Zahid Shehab Ahmed ("Pakistan's Position on the Gulf Crisis"). Yesiltas defined Ankara's approach to the Arabian Peninsula as "moderate," seeking to assure Qatar that it would not be abandoned while also ensuring that it would not break ties entirely with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, especially at a time when Turkey was working with these two countries on other regional issues. This, despite the fact that the UAE in particular was seen as supportive of a failed coup attempt in July, 2016 which sought to overthrow Turkey's democratic regime. Referring to a 2015 agreement between Turkey and Qatar, the ratification of which was expedited by Ankara's parliament when the intra-Gulf crisis broke out two years later, Yesiltas added that a Turkish military contingent deployed to Qatar would be working to train Qatari military personnel without becoming involved in any military conflict—neither the size and capability of the contingent, nor the strategic aims of the Turkish state, would support that.
Zaccara, speaking second on the panel, kicked off by explaining how the crisis in intra-Gulf relations would in the end pay dividends for Iran's regional policies. The 2017 crisis which pitted Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE against Doha had been an unparalleled opportunity for Tehran to involve itself in the affairs of its Arab neighbors, following a period since 2011 when Iran shared Saudi antipathy towards Qatar's support for the Arab Spring in Syria. In contrast, the embargo placed on Qatar by its Gulf neighbors working together with Egypt has allowed Iran to expand its exports to Qatar and to create political capital out of the break in intra-Gulf relations.
Zahid Shehab Ahmed began with an exposition of the deep, extensive ties which tie Pakistan—a country which was Muslim-majority "by design"—with all of the Gulf states. These included the massive trade with the UAE particularly; the growing import of natural gas from Qatar; military deals which saw the Gulf states seek Pakistani expertise in the combatting of extremists; and also the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who worked as expatriates in the Gulf as well as the 200,000 who went to Saudi Arabia annually for the Hajj. Nonetheless, said Ahmed, Islamabad's approach to the intra-GCC crisis could not be understood entirely in terms of trade and economic ties—instead, Pakistan was also keen not to become embroiled in a conflict, which pitted different Arab countries together for ideological reasons, choosing to be a mediator partially for domestic political reasons.
The second session focused on the standpoints of the international powers and their management of a crisis of this scale in a region with great geo-political significance. John Duke Anthony presented his research on "The Future of US-GCC Relations under the Trump Administration in Light of the Gulf Crisis", and clarified that the situation in the GCC countries is tied in with their energy reserves, and their geo-political influence, and closely linked to growth and the global economy. These factors represent decisive determinants of US Gulf Policy.
Sergey Strokan dealt with the Russian position in his presentation on "Russia-GCC Relations: It Takes Two to Tango", in which he suggested that King Salman's historical visit to Moscow in October was the most important for their bilateral relations in recent history. The visit indicates an overturn of a long running tense relationship between the two powers, and a burgeoning Russian-Saudi relationship. He stressed that Russia must not lose this opportunity to develop friendly relations with the Gulf States and to invest current developments in the aim of solving regional crises, such as in Syria.
Jeremias Kettner spoke next, presenting on "Qatari-German Relations and the Gulf Crisis", in which he claimed that Qatari-German relations have seen ever-growing development over the last twenty years. Berlin has been assertive in its approach to the Gulf crisis, as reflected by the statements of Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel who has called for a lifting of the blockade. A resolution of the crisis through diplomatic channels is critical for Germany, especially since Berlin does not have a military presence in the Gulf, a major destination for its exports. Germany's position stemmed from the growing threat of shifting instability from the Arab world to Western Europe. With the Syrian crisis, about one million Syrian refugees fled to Germany alone.
The session was concluded with a paper offered by ACRPS researcher Ahmed Qasem Hussein, entitled "The European Union and the Gulf Crisis: Contexts, Roles and Actors". He pointed out the change in trans-Atlantic relations, which albeit at its lower limits, may be a catalyst for a more cohesive European Union with a more visible and effective international role. This is reflected in the way Brussels has managed the Gulf crisis. Hussein concluded that the crisis in the Gulf prompted decision makers in Brussels to reassess the European role in a manner appropriate to the severity of the crisis, and to determine a common European security and defense policy connected to Europe's neighboring regions, especially the Gulf.
Al Jazeera and Social Media in the Gulf Crisis
In the first panel of the media sessions, the presentations looked at the influence of Al Jazeera in the media age and the information revolution. The first panelist, Haydar Badawi Sadig, presented his paper, "In the Heart of the Storm: How Al Jazeera Is Changing the Gulf and the World", interrogating the success of Al Jazeera in challenging the dominant world powers. He delved into the topic of its bombardment, as a political actor with the power to change the political scene in addition to its role in covering the revolutions of the Arab Spring 2011. In his opinion, Al Jazeera provided every interested political party with a space of expression, in line with its motto of giving a "voice to the voiceless".
Hugh Miles presented next on "Aljazeera and the Information Revolution in the Arab World", alluding to the Arab experience in the 1990s and early 2000s. This information revolution paved the way for the Arab spring in 2011 and 2012, as it contributed to a political awakening for many Arab citizens.
The final panelist of this session, Mahmoud M. Galander, gave his presentation entitled, "Explaining the Wrath against Al Jazeera: A New Model for the Analysis of Arab Media Systems", in which he cited, (and criticized) the William Rugh model to explain the work of the media. Galander pointed out that there are four factors that affect the work of the media. He argued that economic, social and environmental factors, in addition to cultural and religious factors, and political factors, produce goals and communication strategies.
In the second session, which was devoted to social media and the Gulf Crisis, Maryam Al Khater discussed "Propaganda and Mobilization on Twitter in the Gulf Crisis". She concluded that the campaign to incite Qatar, has become an intra-Gulf political conflict in the age of the digital revolution, and that it produced a produced a propaganda war, the first of its kind, between the Gulf family.
Andrew Leber and Alexei Abrahams presented their paper, "Social Media and Authoritarian Thought Hegemony: Evidence from the Gulf Crisis". They explained in an analysis of the political dialogue on Twitter in the Arabian Peninsula that social media, despite its celebrated potential for democratization of debate, could in fact become a tool for dictators to dominate the intellectual discourse.
Abdulrahman Mohammed Al Shami presented the final paper of this session on "Qatari Journalists on Social Media during the Gulf Crisis", stressing that the blockade imposed on Qatar since June 5 2017, is "an important stage in the history of Gulf media in general and Qatar in particular."