The Spectacle and the Gulf Power Struggle

The end of June saw an interesting development in the regional balance-of-power struggle in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia along with some of the Gulf emirates called on the peninsular kingdom of Qatar submit to thirteen demands or face the prospect of severe economic sanctions and political isolation. The demands come out of several years of tensions between Qatar and its Arab neighbors over allegations Qatar is supporting radical Islamic terrorists and becoming a little too friendly with Iran, a country that is seeking hegemony in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Israel. Many of the thirteen points refer to this aforementioned support of terrorism, including demands Qatar end monetary support of groups other nations (including the United States) have designated “terrorist,” cease its interference in other nations via clandestine channels and providing compensation for violence perpetrated by groups Qatar has given indirect support.

The most interesting of the thirteen points are numbers three and four, which read:

  1. Shut down al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations.
  2. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.

Authoritarian regimes have never been big boosters of “free media” (even if such a thing doesn’t really exist in a capitalist world), but the demand to shut down one of the world’s largest satellite news broadcasters is brazen. As one recent newspaper profile wrote, (Al Jazeera) claims to broadcast to more than 310m households in more than 100 countries. The company employs more than 3,000 people and has a London studio in the Shard.”[1] To channel the spirit of a long-running popular meme, “one does not simply shut down a major satellite new broadcaster in ten days”. To shut down AL Jazeera would not only be logistically very difficult, it also entails asking thousands of employees, including countless reporters and support staff who would no doubt put their journalistic skills to work asking questions about the background, mindset, habits, behaviors, foibles, vices, and countless other unsavory details about the regime and its leaders who made such an unprecedented demand. The question thus arises: why would Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States make such a demand?

There is a temptation in answering this question to attribute such a call to the traditional authoritarian impulse to control information. There is certainly much to this. However, in an era when the spectacle is one of the dominant generators of human experience, the call to precipitously terminate a large generator of this spectacle, especially one that plays an important role in how power conflicts in the Middle East are perceived, points to a deeper layer of explanation. In making the call to shut Al-Jazeera, Saudi Arabia and its partners are essentially demanding a form of disarmament.

To see how this might be the case, one needs to travel back in time to World War I and the story of an American bureaucrat named George Creel who was tapped by President Woodrow Wilson to manage the information flow in the United States during the war and persuade a skeptical public at home (and a not necessarily friendly foreign media) that the war was noble and necessary. So empowered, Creel created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and in the process, revolutionized the role of information in the business of the state and recast media as a branch of the armed forces. In a book he wrote after the war was over and the CPI dissolved, Creel asserted:

There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ. The printed word, the spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the cable, the wireless, the poster, the sign-board—all these were used in our campaign to make our own people and all other peoples understand the causes that compelled America to take up arms.[2]

Than a few pages later:

Mortar-guns, loaded with “paper bullets,” and airplanes, carrying pamphlet matter, bombarded the German front, and at the time of the armistice balloons with a cruising radius of five hundred miles were ready to launch far into the Central Powers with America’s message.[3]

Creel was arguing here that in the larger war effort, the media ought to be seen not merely as a minor appendage of the larger military conflict going on across the Atlantic, but as a central front in the war itself. The imagery about “paper bullets” is especially apt, as the suggestion here is that these “paper bullets” would have a similar effect as the real ones in allowing the US and its allies to attain victory. And where the real bullets made their impact through violence and force, the paper bullets made their impact through the less lethal means of persuasion and publicity. In Creel’s view, there was no substantive difference between the deployment of military force and the deployment of media assets.

Indeed, Creel perhaps did his job too well. In the wake of the conflict, he came under intense scrutiny for what many saw as his manipulation of public opinion in favor of the war and the disquieting questions this success raised.[4] Had some kind of dark art casting a spell over the collective consciousness of the nation been discovered by Creel and what did this mean in terms of preserving a free space for open debate that a democracy ostensibly requires? Many of the these questions wouldn’t be answered more fully until the Second World War and a new round of media and cultural weaponization took place on both sides of this conflict.

Back in the twenty-first century and the power struggle in the Gulf, the request by Saudi Arabia to terminate the operations of Al Jazeera takes on a new dimension. What the Saudis and their allies are essentially demanding of Qatar is the liquidation of its most powerful power resource—akin to demanding a traditional great power dissolve its army or navy. It is a powerful admission by Saudi Arabia that in the battle for influence in the global spectacle, the Saudis cannot prevail against a nation that by any other measure is inferior, and so must use these other power resources to negate this disadvantage.

Of course, this analysis also indicates why Qatar cannot possibly agree to these demands, for what nation would willingly surrender its most effective weapons? It is akin to asking a state with a nuclear weapons to surrender such capabilities—it simply will not happen short of some very large and very generous concessions and/or incentives. Indeed, one is tempted to see demands three and four less as actual demands and more as possible points of concession in exchange for compliance on the other demands. As the deadlines for such compliance are moved around and ultimate sanctions delayed, such speculation will ultimately by verified, but in the meantime, an interesting case of the changing perceptions of what constitutes power and threat will continue to play out both in Middle East and for the rest of the world. The outcome here may be a harbinger for how states struggle with each other in the future.

[1] Graham Ruddick, “Al-Jazeera: The Qatar broadcaster at the centre of a diplomatic crisis” The Guardian, 24 June, 2017.

[2] George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper Brothers, 1920), 5.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Ibid., 427.

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