The 2017 feud between the Saudi Arabia-led countries and Qatar had the contentious role of the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera (literally ‘the Island’) channel as the foremost issue. Launched in 1996 as part of the then Qatari Emir, Hamad Al Thani’s deliberate attempt to break away from the appendages of Saudi Arabian domination, it has since become a significant and credible voice in the media space with 80 bureaus globally, in multi-language and multi-format options (TV, digital, internet, specialty television channels etc.).
Its resonance has a lot to do with the relatively independent reportage that came as a breath of fresh air in the heavily controlled media scene in the Arab Sheikdoms. Its purported ‘contextual objectivity’ had raised eyebrows as it did not follow the diktats of major powers like the Saudis. It was even accused of fanning the Arab Spring, covering the perspectives of the hitherto untouchables like Iran or Israel, as also of toeing the Qatari line by manipulating its content to legitimise the official views of Qatar.
The Saudis were soon able to muster the Emiratis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Bahrainis and even the distant Comoros, Mauritania, Maldives etc., against it. Suddenly, the regional balance was threatened by the existence of a channel with an ostensible ‘editorial independence’, and the Saudis were not willing to allow an alternative narrative, that did not have its endorsement. The Saudi-Qatari breakdown went beyond the traditional divide of the Shia-Sunni sectarianism (both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are Sunni-majority nations), as Doha made deliberate efforts to conjoin the Shiite Tehran in order to further counter the sanctions enforced by the Saudi bloc.
Beyond the major sectarian divide that besets the Ummah (Muslim world), emerging countries like Turkey and Malaysia also view themselves with a certain assertion that no longer needs subservience to Riyadh, as followed by most other Islamic countries which remain dependent on Saudi-Emirati- Kuwaiti doles. This has led to tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, most recently with the open naming-and-shaming of Riyadh in the horrific murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. As per a Pew opinion poll, the Turks hold the most negative view of Saudi Arabia amongst all Muslim countries (26 per cent favourably and 53 per cent unfavourably).
Similarly, Malaysia which enjoys a historical commercialcultural relationship with Riyadh, had presciently withdrawn its troops from the Saudi Arabia-led Islamic military alliance in order to assuage Iran and reflect its own neutrality. The faultlines in the Saudi hold over Ummah affairs through the control of fora like the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), Islamic Military Alliance and above all, as the principal ‘voice’ of the Ummah was uniquely threatened by a media channel like Al Jazeera. On the sidelines of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly meeting, Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir and the ever-enthusiastic Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to start a jointtelevision channel, ostensibly to fight international ‘Islamophobia’.
The apparent purpose was to educate, clarify and end prejudices against Islam. As the forbearers of claimed ‘modernity’ within the Ummah, these countries decided to pool resources and infrastructural facilities to develop the relevant content. Imran Khan jumped the gun and likened the idea to a ‘BBC-like channel’. It sounded noble and progressive, except for the fact that such a concept militated against the preferences of a ‘controlled media’ that was amenable to the powerful Gulf Sheikhdoms. The Saudis could never tolerate yet another Al Jazeera in its midst, that too purportedly positioning itself as the real voice of Islam, thereby threatening its hegemony over the narrative.
Even beyond the purpose of educating the world, the covert Turkish-Malaysian intent of asserting themselves within the Ummah, was feared. Later, Malaysia hosted an ‘Islamic Summit’ which upped the ante within the Ummah as it was perceived to be germinating a bloc entailing Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar and Iran, that could potentially emerge as an alternative to the Saudi controlled OIC. Pakistan was also invited, given Imran Khan’s initial enthusiasm over starting a TV Channel, in pursuance of such a platform. The Saudis immediately berated Imran and he decided against going ahead. The Pakistan Prime Minister later admitted, “Unfortunately, our friends, who are very close to Pakistan as well, felt that somehow the conference was going to divide the Ummah”.
The conference went ahead and the participating countries slammed the apparent pusillanimity of the OIC (indirectly the Saudis and other Sheikhdoms), and also indicated the emergence of a new ‘alternative’ power centre. While Imran Khan did make a subsequent visit to Kuala Lampur to mend fences with Malaysia, the joint Turkey-Malaysia- Pakistan TV channel idea remains mired in uncertainties, given the Saudi pressure. The roping in of Iran into the comity of influential Islamic countries like Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia and Pakistan is indeed a very threatening proposition for the Saudis and its ‘voice’ in the form of a media channel, absolutely abhorrent.
Given the economic muscle that the Saudi bloc still wields, especially with beholden countries like Pakistan, it will exert brazen pressure to deter such a platform. Even beyond the Shiite angularity with Iran, the Turks essentially belong to the Hanafi school of Sunnis, the Malaysians the Shafi’i version, and predominantly Hanafi Madhhab for the Pakistanis. This again posits the country against the Wahhabism of the Saudis and the other supporting Arab nations.
The portents of deligitimising the Saudi supremacy in the form of religious, commercial and strategic relevance will lead to considerable angst as the Sheikhdoms have been affected by the ‘contrarian voice’ beaming into their countries during the Arab Spring. It had given the protestors hope and succour from the official narrative. While Pakistan is easily malleable given its economic vulnerability, the Malaysians too may succumb to pressures as this ‘new bloc’ may still not be able to replace the Saudi-controlled bloc, as yet. This will leave two unnatural allies in the form of Iran and Turkey to carry the can, and therefore unequal stakes of regional realpolitik may get the better of attempts to diminish the OIC-Saudi control.
(The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)