Feuding Gulf states that have pumped millions of dollars into public diplomacy appear to have done better in damaging the reputations of their detractors than in polishing their own tarnished images.
Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, all appear to fare poorly in how they are perceived, judged by a recent survey of American public opinion. The international community’s response to the two-month-old Gulf crisis suggests, however, that Qatar so far has been more successful in garnering muted support for its call for direct talks to solve the crisis – a position rejected by its detractors.
In the only survey to date of public perceptions in the United States of the Gulf crisis by Britain’s YouGov on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s foremost English-language daily, Arab News, Qatar faired poorest in its approval rating, but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the instigators of a diplomatic and economic boycott of the idiosyncratic Gulf state did not do much better.
Poll results showed that a mere 27 percent of the 2,263 people queried considered Qatar a friend or ally of the United States compared to Saudi Arabia with 37 and the UAE with 39 percent. Thirty-one percent identified Qatar as unfriendly or an enemy of the US. Only 16 percent of those polled associated Qatar with its hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup while 34 percent linked Qatar to being accused of supporting terrorism and 44 percent believed that Qatar’s state-owned, controversial Al Jazeera television network provided a platform for militant and jihadist groups.
Arab News reported extensively on the poll, but appeared to refrain from providing a link to the original survey report. The report was also not immediately accessible on YouGov’s website. As a result, it was difficult to independently evaluate the survey beyond the results published by Arab News as well as based on the questions asked. It was also not clear to what degree the poll further surveyed perceptions of Qatar’s detractors and how they compared to those of the Gulf state.
The Arab News reporting was the latest salvo in a public relations war waged by state-owned or privately-owned media on both sides of the Gulf divide that operate in an environment of highly restricted freedom of the press and often have close ties to government and/or ruling families.
The Financial Times quoted Saudi journalists as saying that they had been pressured by government to criticise Qatar. One Saudi editor described to the FT how officials have been using a mobile phone messaging group to instruct journalists on how to shape coverage and what stories to focus on. “These are orders, not suggestions,” the editor said.
Focusing exclusively on the poll’s Qatar-related results, Arab News editor-in-chief Faisal J. Abbas expressed “surprise” at “how quickly the diplomatic row has negatively affected ‘Brand Qatar,’ at least in the US… It was interesting to see that despite the billions spent by Qatar on various soft power initiatives — from education to charity to international sport — the study found that more Americans associate it with supporting terror than anything else, “ Mr. Abbas wrote.
Mr. Abbas made no reference to the fact that like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have deployed huge sums to hire a battery of US public relations and lobbying firms in a bid to garner support for their positions. Nor did he discuss what return on investment they have had.
Striking a slightly more cautionary note in one of several commentaries on the YouGov poll published by Arab News, Sir John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to the kingdom, noted that “Saudi Arabia has ground to make up here, which is an important policy point for decision-makers in Riyadh: Reputation matters in the modern world and you do not improve that without a smart, targeted and sustained communications strategy.”
Last month, a random online YouGov poll suggested that of those asked whose side they were on in the Gulf crisis, 23 percent opted for Qatar and only nine percent for Saudi Arabia. Two thirds of the respondents said they did not know enough to choose sides.
The results of the survey of US public opinion, notwithstanding, Qatar appeared to be faring better than the poll results suggested. A majority of Arab and Muslim states have refrained from joining the UAE-Saudi-led campaign, which is backed by less than a score of African and Asian nations, who are dependent on the oil-rich Gulf states in financial and/or political terms.
The international community almost unanimously has refused to endorse the UAE-Saudi-led alliance’s conditions for resolving the Gulf crisis. The United States, the European Union, China and Russia have effectively backed Qatar’s call for direct talks between the Gulf states and its detractors, a proposal rejected by the alliance.
The alliance’s “problem with (their) display of political bravado is that nobody else buys it, and they are awkwardly isolated in their tent woven of threads of bravado. This is mainly because their accusations are wildly exaggerated, and also hypocritical on core complaints like funding Islamist movements, having relations with Iran, or interfering in other states’ affairs. The Saudi-Emirati media propaganda pushing such accusations has been embarrassing in its ultra-thin doses of truth, and wildly counter-productive, serving only to further damage the credibility that some GCC media did enjoy in recent years,” noted prominent journalist and pundit Rami G. Khouri.
Mr. Khouri argued further that “in the court of global public opinion, the Qataris appear to be much more sensible, consistent, focused, and precise, while the Saudi-Emirati-led states seem to express genuine anger and fear accompanied by unrealistic and unreasonable demands, but without convincing evidence for their accusations.”
The UAE-Saudi-led alliance has demanded that Qatar shutter Al Jazeera and other media outlets; reduce its relations with Iran with whom it shares the world’s largest gas field; expel Turkish troops from the emirate; and cut ties to militant and Islamist groups irrespective of whether they have been proscribed by the United Nations or the United States. Qatar has rejected the demands as an infringement on its sovereignty.
To many, the dispute in the Gulf amounts to the pot blaming the kettle and twisting the truth to serve rival narratives that fuel their public relations and media wars. Literally all parties to the dispute are suspected of having had, at least at some points in time, links to militant groups. All, apart from Saudi Arabia, maintain often flourishing economic relations with Iran and many have foreign military bases on their soil.
Said hard-hitting, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald in an article detailing the Gulf rivals’ investment in Washington public relations and lobby firms some four years prior to the current Gulf crisis: “The point here is not that Qatar is innocent of supporting extremists… The point is that this coordinated media attack on Qatar – using highly paid former U.S. officials and their media allies – is simply a weapon used by the Emirates, Israel, the Saudis and others to advance their agendas… What’s misleading isn’t the claim that Qatar funds extremists but that they do so more than other U.S. allies in the region… Indeed, some of Qatar’s accusers here do the same to at least the same extent, and in the case of the Saudis, far more so.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.