Clifford Smith, the director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project, spoke on January 22 to Middle East Forum Radio co-host Gary C. Gambill about the Emirate of Qatar's propaganda media conglomerate, Al Jazeera, and its success in flouting American lawsconcerning foreign state-controlled media outlets operating in the U.S.
According to Smith, the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), originally established to counter Nazi propaganda efforts, now includes an amendment requiring foreign-owned media not originally covered under the act to register with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As a result, many foreign-owned media outlets operating in the U.S. under the direction of foreign governments have since been obliged to register as foreign agents, but not Al Jazeera's English programming arm.
To circumvent FARA, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani unloaded his controlling stake in Al Jazeera International Limited to a dormant shell company, while remaining fully in control of its English-language news services. To date, the FCC has not sought to enforce Al Jazeera's compliance with FARA, even though it is "owned by a sovereign and run by a sovereign."
That may change due to steadily increasing congressional pressure and growing concern over foreign interference. Al Jazeera English goes to great lengths to win supporters in the West by appealing to the progressive left. But when the network covers Gulf politics, it clearly advances the narrow interests of the Qatari regime.
Qatar used to be seen as a quirky emirate that was basically pro-Western even though it hosted Muslim Brotherhood exiles. Playing both sides is not uncommon for smaller, weaker Gulf countries who employ this traditional Arab defense mechanism. But Qatar has moved much farther, becoming strategically pro-Islamist and pro-Muslim Brotherhood, establishing a Turkish military base, and drawing closer to the Iranian regime.
Qatar has spent "ungodly amounts of money" to bolster its influence in the U.S.
As a result, Qatar's relations with other Gulf states have frayed to the point where several have severed relations with it. "A lot of the other Gulf states and other Arab states rightly see the Iranian ... Shia theocracy as a threat to their existence," explained Smith.
As Qatar has alienated its traditional Arab allies, it has "increasingly sought the U.S. to intermediate and ... win battles for them." Al Jazeera English is one of several instruments on which the Qataris have spent "ungodly amounts of money" to bolster their influence in the U.S.
Others include hosting American public intellectuals and opinion-makers in Qatar (notably Mort Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee), taking out sponsored op-eds praising Qatar in the Washington Times, and lavishing funding on influential university departments that deal with Middle East issues.
Al Jazeera is key to helping the Qataris "get away with as much as they possibly can."
According to tracking by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, "Qatar has been the number one [foreign] donor to U.S. universities for quite a number of years," said Smith.
Qatar "wants business to go on as usual with no changes" in U.S. policy, while its estranged neighbors "who feel justifiably threatened by Iran and other radicals in the region are going in the opposite direction and wanting to change the [U.S.-Qatari] status quo which existed for decades." Al Jazeera English is "key" to helping the Qataris "get away with as much as they possibly can and keep the status quo as much as they can."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.