Al Jazeera At Center Of Dispute Between Qatar And Its Gulf Neighbors

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We’d like to turn now to a story out of the Middle East, the rift between Qatar and some of its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Along with Egypt, those countries have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar saying it is supporting Islamic extremists which the country’s leaders deny. Saudi Arabia has closed its land border and barred flights from Qatar’s airline. Now, this could have a serious impact on the country’s access to food and other supplies.

But we were wondering about the potential impact on what may be the country’s most famous export, Al Jazeera, the news channel. The channel which is offered in both English and Arabic is funded by the Qatari royal family, but as part of their break with Qatar, several countries in the region have pulled Al-Jazeera’s operating licenses. We wanted to know more about the crisis in general and what role Al Jazeera may play in it specifically.

So we called somebody with a deep background in both journalism and diplomacy, Richard Stengel. He is the former managing editor of Time magazine and a former undersecretary of state in the Obama administration. He’s with us now from New York. Richard Stengel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RICHARD STENGEL: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So briefly, if you could just set the table for us, what is the source of this rift between Qatar and these other Gulf countries?

STENGEL: Well, it’s complicated. I mean, the source of the rift is that the Sunni states think that Qatar is soft on Iran, soft on the Muslim brotherhood, who they see as a mortal enemy. And it really boils down to that sense that the Qataris are more open to that point of view and haven’t really rallied with the Sunni nations against the Muslim brotherhood and against Iran.

Qataris see the kind of old-style Sunni leadership of the Saudis as offering an opportunity for a new, broader kind of more progressive Islam. That’s the way they see it, and I think there’s a lot of sympathy in the Middle East for how they see things.

MARTIN: Does Al Jazeera have some role in this current crisis?

STENGEL: Yes. I think it has a big role in fact. And, I mean, you mentioned my role at the State Department was public diplomacy which is what we call soft power. What Al Jazeera was was a great soft power effort on the part of the Qataris, and, in fact, a soft power revolution in a way for the Arabic voice in the Middle East.

And some part of this has to do with the sense by the Saudis and the Emirates and the Bahrainis is that the Qataris have really launched the voice of Middle East, the kind of big tent emotional voice of Sunni grievance. And they’re a little bit jealous of that.

MARTIN: We know that the channel has continued to be an irritant to a number of the governments in the region. Do they have any legitimate grievances from the standpoint of there being a mouthpiece, for example, for extremists?

STENGEL: They have a legitimate view in the sense that they see it as a mouthpiece for the Qatari government. I mean, the separation between government and media that we have in the U.S. is not quite the same in the Middle East. And so they see Al Jazeera as espousing views of the Qatari government, particularly when there are stories that are critical of the Saudis or the Emirates.

MARTIN: So what is the U.S. role here? And important to point out that Qatar also hosts a large U.S. airbase. So what is the U.S. role in this?

STENGEL: Doha is the headquarters of central command which is the main way that we fight ISIS in the Middle East. I think that’s why Secretary Tillerson is trying to repair the breach. It’s really a very unusual situation where the president of the United States attacks an ally where we have thousands of American soldiers.

MARTIN: That was Richard Stengel. He’s a former State Department official, former undersecretary of state in the Obama administration. He’s also a former editor-in-chief of Time magazine. Richard Stengel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STENGEL: Great to be with you.

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