In Arabic, “al jazeera” means “the island.” That’s an apt description for the news network that carries that name, since it’s been isolated in the diplomatic dispute engulfing Persian Gulf nations.

Long a thorn among monarchies throughout the region — as well as a key player in Arab Spring movements to democratize some of these same countries — the Qatari-government-sponsored Al Jazeera has become central in the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, which cut ties with and essentially blockaded Qatar a month ago.

The crisis concerns several issues, but most notably it’s focused on Qatar’s comfortable relations with Iran and Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, while maintaining its membership in the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council as well as hosting the largest U.S. military base in the Mideast.

The long-simmering anger over Qatar’s contradictions finally boiled into a boycott and the issuance of 13 demands to Doha, including that Qatar shutter Al Jazeera and its affiliated networks.

The instigating nation of the anti-Qatar quartet is the de-facto GCC leader, Saudi Arabia, whose transition is the subject of this month’s Global Minnesota Great Decisions dialogue.

The image of this transition is reflected in fresh faces, from Hosam Zowawi, a world-renowned microbiologist who will headline a July 24 Global Minnesota event, to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old Saudi leader who leapfrogged a generation in King Salman’s succession plan.

America’s new leader apparently appreciates the direction of Saudi Arabia’s transition, since the kingdom was chosen for President Donald Trump’s first foreign visit.

But now it’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveling the region in a shuttle diplomacy bid to bind the erstwhile allies back together. On Tuesday, Tillerson and Qatar’s foreign minister signed a memorandum of understanding addressing how Qatar can better fight terrorism, a key issue among those cutting Qatar off as well as the focus of the 50-nation summit the Saudis gathered during Trump’s visit.

Referencing that event, Tillerson said, “Qatar, I think, has taken this initiative to move out on things that had been discussed but had not been brought to a conclusion, and to put in place a very, very strong agreement.”

But evidently not strong enough, since Tillerson headed home on Thursday with no big breakthrough.

“I think the secretary of state has an uphill battle in front of him,” said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Saudis and the Emiratis in particular are furious at Qatar for behavior that they believe to be undermining not only the region’s security but also the security of the other GCC states. So I think that even this memorandum of understanding that the Qataris and the Americans signed is just understood by the Saudis and Emiratis as not enough. Their bottom line is that they have had enough promises from Qatar. … The only thing that’s going to persuade them to let up on the pressure on Qatar is actual changes in behavior.”

Whether these changes include closing Al Jazeera is unclear. But it clearly shouldn’t, according to two leading media-freedom organizations.

“The use of pressure and blackmail, which is essentially what the Gulf states requesting the closure of Al Jazeera are doing, betrays a very clear desire by these Gulf states to censor Qatari media and is a serious threat to press freedom and pluralism and the right of access to information in the region,” said Margaux Ewen, advocacy and communications director for the North American office of Reporters Without Borders.

“It’s deeply problematic to use media outlets as political pawns, as bargaining chips, in diplomatic disputes,” concurred Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Al Jazeera is an important news organization in the region and it is an alternative in a media market that is actually quite dominated by Saudi-owned organizations.”

Al Jazeera has long been controversial, including for broadcasting Osama bin Laden interviews. “There are several sides of this Al Jazeera story,” Boghardt said. “Al Jazeera is a tool, one of many tools that the Qataris use, to undermine the region from the perspective of the Saudis and the Emiratis, and to a large degree, I think the Americans agree with them on that.”

The demands for Al Jazeera’s total closure may be morphing more toward external editorial controls, according to the London-based Guardian newspaper, an analysis Boghardt said seems likely.

Yet closing or curtailing the network is fraught for Qatar and beyond, said the advocacy directors.

“It’s deeply, deeply problematic and deeply concerning and would set a very dangerous precedent for other regions and other disputes,” Radsch said.

And Ewen points out that the four nations calling for closure fall far down the list of Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index (Saudi Arabia ranks 168th out of 179 countries; Bahrain, 164th; the United Arab Emirates, 119th; Egypt, 161st). Qatar, despite hosting Al Jazeera, still ranks a disappointingly low 123rd.

The transition in Saudi Arabia, and indeed the region, won’t reach its potential without more media freedom, let alone diplomatic cohesion, so the sooner unity is restored among these nations the sooner it can be sought more broadly in the perpetually troubled region.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

 

Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Go to globalminnesota.org.