5 Mar 2014

Relations between Gulf States break down amid accusations of promoting democracy and freedom of speech

The simmering tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar came to a head today following months of wrangling and bitter disputes. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors from Qatar which they accuse of ‘promoting democracy and freedom of speech’, charges that the Qatari government strongly refutes. Qatar retaliated by accusing Saudi Arabia of running its own programme for ‘spreading tolerance and universal values’. The confrontation threatens regional stability and will have far-reaching consequences.

A joint statement by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain accused Qatar of violating previous agreements and ‘importing culturally-alien ideas’ by allowing the state-owned television station Al-Jazeera to broadcast views and opinions and insidiously promoting the values of freedom of speech and expression. It also accused Qatar of allowing religions figures close to the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, which is banned in Saudi Arabia, to speak freely in public. The tone of the statement suggested how outrageous the three governments find this notion.

Qatar defended itself by listing its recent record on imprisoning people for their views and strongly denied that it has any serious commitment to the freedom of speech and that it remains ‘very selective in allowing views and opinions to be broadcast on Al-Jazeera’. It attacked Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, saying that if anyone was promoting freedom of speech it would be Al Arabiya who employs ‘a wide variety of people from different background and versatile points of view.’

Saudi Arabia in turn strongly rejected those accusations, arguing that it is rigorously committed to controlling the variety of opinions and perspectives on offer in its multiple media outlets and that accusing it of promoting freedom of speech and democracy was ‘frankly ludicrous’. A Saudi spokesman warned Qataris not to take statements literally and ‘sometimes we use words like freedom and democracy but in a very loose and metaphorical way.’

Both countries also traded accusations of promoting democracy in Syria which faces a real risk of transitioning into a secular democracy within the coming few years. Statements by both sides countered those accusations saying that they have done more for undermining the development of democracy in Syria in the future. Both countries wheeled out evidence of how extreme the groups they support in Syria are to counter those accusations.

Qatar maintained that Saudi Arabia was committed behind the scenes to a programme of promoting tolerance and universal values which it has concealed very successfully so far but was nevertheless a real possibility. The Saudis dismissed these allegations citing their frequent attacks on universal values and all forms of freedom, maintaining their ‘commitment to cultural relativism and repressive norms.’ The spokesman commented: ‘anyone who accuses us of tolerance is delusional’.

These developments have brought regional relationships to a crisis point that threatens to boil over and embroil other countries in the process. But ironically the one common factor among all of the countries involved is their strong denials of accusations of promoting democracy, freedom of speech and universal values. Could the Gulf States find common ground in that? Only time can tell.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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