As an Australian journalist I am outraged by the imprisonment of Peter Greste and his colleagues in Egypt all manifestly innocent of the charged that convicted them. However, the same cannot be said about their employers Al Jazeera. Their employees are paying a heavy price for the Qatari media organisation’s meddling in Egyptian politics. Reporter Peter Greste, bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed are victims of Middle Eastern energy politics, pawns in a long game between Egypt and Qatar with significant roles for Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Al Jazeera broke the back of western dominance of world news reporting and who have a formidable global news reputation branching out in every direction from its foundation of excellence in Arab affairs. Founded in 1996 with a charter to overcome censorship, Al Jazeera is bankrolled by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar until he abdicated for his son Tamim in 2013. But Al Jazeera has a growing blind spot as the network becomes more important.
Qatar’s massive oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the richest country in the world per capita, wealth it now pours into influence in world affairs. Al Jazeera is one of Al Thani’s pet projects and despite its influence it has been unable to turn a profit independently. It dares not bite the hand that feeds it. Matters off limits to Al Jazeera include the 2022 World Cup or Qatar’s place in Gulf politics. The relationship between Qatar and Egypt is particularly problematic and Al Jazeera are not just reporters of that relationship but players.
This dangerous game dates back to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who was backed by the Saudi government. He viewed the Qataris and Al Jazeera as regional troublemakers. Following the Arab Spring, Al Thani put Qatar’s billions into the new governments. Mubarak was toppled in 2011 and replaced in elections by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar swung into action to prop up Morsi.
Qatar supplied oil and also liquefied natural gas Egypt needs to fulfil export contracts. Egypt has state-run energy companies but allows foreign firms to exploit its gas reserves which the government subsidises for the domestic market. The foreign companies recoup costs by exporting gas for higher prices. But as Egypt’s demand increased and supply declined, there was less gas for the foreign market. Qatar filled the gap, selling the gas to Morsi’s foreign clients. Qatar also signed a deal to deliver an LNG import terminal. This was a powerplay against the Saudis and UAE. Both had a long standing enmity to the Brotherhood and both supplied energy to Mubarak’s economy. Al Jazeera also enthusiastically threw it weight behind the new Islamist regime to the disquiet of its journalists.
The army deposed the Brotherhood government in 2013, to the quandary of the western leaders, who quantified their hatred of coups to their hatred of elected Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood once again became officially Egyptian public enemy number one, but Qatar became number two. Those few Brotherhood powerbrokers who escaped the crackdown mostly ended up in Qatar. Al Jazeera is alleged to have paid for hotel suites in Doha for the exiles.
Egypt’s new master Abdel al-Sisi was left with a big problem of how to replace Qatari energy. He turned to the Saudis, UAE and Kuwait. Those countries showered Egypt in petrol and diesel products but could not supply al-Sisi with LNG for his power plants. No other Gulf state has the gas capacity of Qatar, and Egypt owes $8 billion to the oil companies. Al-Sisi had to increase the domestic price. With natural gas supplying 70% of local electricity, cutbacks are inevitable, possibly leading to more domestic discontent. Al-Sisi moved to avoid possible blackouts by contracting Norwegian HOG-Energy to anchor an LNG unit in the Red Sea. That won’t be online until autumn past the critical month of Ramadan when people fast during the day.
Al-Sisi does not want to risk becoming the third leader deposed in three years and management of the message is crucial to his success. He closed down Islamist news channels in 2013 including Al Jazeera’s Egyptian station Mubashir Misr. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar were arrested in December accused of “damaging national security.” The government said the journalists held illegal meetings with the Brotherhood which had been declared illegal the previous week.
Greste’s letters from prison admitted he knew the dangers and had discussed them with Fahmy but they decided to press ahead anyway. He said they was doing what journalists across the world do: “recording and making sense of unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands.” Greste said he did not support the Muslim Brotherhood. But he does not acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar are scapegoats and cause celebres for press freedom. Telling the truth is not terrorism – but the truth is rarely simple. Greste and his two colleagues deserve our support, but they should know this is also about geopolitics as much as the right to report. Worldwide pressure should be applied to Doha as well as Cairo.