Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
Following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, media outlets in the Gulf Arab states offered considerable coverage and commentary on the ongoing protests against police violence and systemic racism in the United States. To be sure, regionally focused topics garnered more attention, especially in a week that marked the third anniversary of the Gulf rift between Qatar and its neighbors. Beyond a widespread (but not universal) concern with the damaging effects of protest-related rioting, two main features of media coverage in the region stand out.
First, Saudi media outlets displayed a much greater concern with the political fortunes of President Donald J. Trump and have either downplayed criticism of his actions during the protests or featured commentary attacking the president’s critics, or both. Second, the protests have raised further questions about the United States’ role in the world and region. Op-eds variously viewed the demonstrations as a sign of internal division and loss of moral leadership or an inspiring example of how citizens (even in the Gulf states) can address racism at home.
Violent Protest or Political Crisis?
Several newspapers initially offered a “law and order” framework for the protests, discussing the importance of containing their disruptive potential. Saudi Arabia’s Al-Riyadh, in line with many U.S. outlets in the early days of the demonstrations, highlighted acts of looting and violence associated with protesters through stories on Trump’s threat to designate antifa, a loosely affiliated group of anti-fascism activists, as a terrorist organization, and the “chaos” of ongoing demonstrations that might necessitate military intervention.
Writing for the same paper on June 4, “intellectual security” expert Baina al-Malham deemed the rioting related to the protests “worse than the killing of George Floyd,” arguing that anybody who sought to justify such “terrorism” bore direct responsibility for any ensuing acts of violence. Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas likewise discussed the protests in a June 2 article, which conceded that Trump’s rhetoric had contributed to “setting fire to the country” but argued that protesters bore considerable responsibility as well.
Other outlets covered the forceful dispersal of peaceful protesters in front of Lafayette Park on June 1 at length, increasingly viewing it as a turning point in U.S. media coverage emphasizing violence by police and government forces.
Washington-based correspondents for Asharq Al-Awsat (Saudi-owned but headquartered in London) provided extensive coverage of the event, conveying the range of criticism that Trump faced after peaceful protesters were forcibly dispersed in advance of a presidential photo opportunity at the nearby St. John’s Church.
Several papers from across the region followed suit. Kuwait’s Al Rai newspaper closely monitored the situation, from the clearing of H street itself to peaceful demonstrations in ensuing days. Al-Arab, one of Qatar’s main dailies, pointed to the use of tear gas in compiled wire reports that cast doubt on the Trump administration’s claims about organized violence by demonstrators while highlighting statements of support for protesters from past presidents. Several Emirati papers, such as Sharjah’s Al Khaleej, offered similar coverage.
Likewise, nearly all outlets noted tensions in U.S. civil-military relations following the use of force against protesters – even those that featured little coverage of the June 1 events.
Saudi daily Okaz, while making only passing reference to protesters being “moved back from in front of the historic church,” ran a June 4 article discussing the political fortune of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper as he backed away from the idea of using force against protesters. Asharq Al-Awsat’s coverage spoke of a “dangerous tension” between the president and the U.S. armed forces, conveying the criticisms of former senior military officials like James Mattis and Michael Mullen.
In other cases, coverage of the “Battle of Lafayette Park” highlighted sharp differences in media framing, variously presenting Trump as under siege or fully in control. For Arabic-speaking television audiences, Qatar’s Al Jazeera contrasted Trump’s statements in support of peaceful protest with the use of force against peaceful protesters in front of the White House.
Saudi broadcaster Al-Arabiya, however, made no mention of protesters being cleared in a news report on “mutual accusations” between Trump and Democratic leaders, or in a compilation of footage of the president “walking outside the White House” (set to dramatic music) on June 1 – even though Al-Arabiya cameras were in place to catch live footage of the protesters being dispersed.
Riding the Wave
Some Saudi commentators have sought to frame the protests as largely reflecting the efforts of the U.S. left to stir up criticism of Trump. Several responded to Twitter placing warning labels on Trump’s tweets at the end of May, with Muhammad al- Said of Okaz claiming the move revealed the extent of “resentment and bitterness on the left” toward the president. (Complaints about social media censorship are common to both the U.S. right and many Saudi nationalists.)
Similarly, former interpreter and self-styled U.S. affairs expert Ahmed al-Farraj commented for Al-Arabiya as well as Sky News Arabia that Democrats had taken advantage of George Floyd’s murder to incite protests against Trump – revealing the party’s “leftist and socialist tendencies.”
Others have gone further in portrayals of the demonstrations as disruptive and dangerous events stirred up by “hidden hands” for political gain. Abdullah al-Otaibi, writing for Asharq Al-Awsat, condemned the protests as part of the “struggle of the [followers of] Obama and their left and anarchist allies against President Trump,” one of a growing number of op-eds discussing the implications of the coming U.S. election for Saudi Arabia.
Kuwait’s Al-Qabas drew a similar analogy between the U.S. and Arab “Springs,” yet did not offer a partisan explanation for events. While acknowledging that many came forth to protest the “tragic killing of George Floyd,” the June 4 editorial instructed readers “to take care in viewing this great [American] sight. It is time for every Arab and Muslim to absorb the lesson … that demonstrations and chaos only lead to ruin.”
Implications for the Future
Gulf Arab commentators also looked toward the future in analyzing what the protests might mean for U.S. standing in the world as well as the lessons for their societies. One strand of analysis predicted that the protests would undermine U.S. advocacy of human rights abroad, weakening the country in the face of strategic competition with Russia and China.
Al-Qabas’ international affairs editor posited that the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests had “stripped Washington of its strongest power” – its moral authority. Omani analyst Awad bin Saeed Baqwir, writing for Oman on June 3, argued that the “internal contradictions of American politics” would further erode U.S. standing in the world as social justice movements and right-wing activism distracted policymakers from international engagement.
Still, several hopeful perspectives highlighted the demonstrations as a positive example, even within many of the same outlets that were deeply critical of the protests. Sharifa al-Shalfan, writing for Al-Qabas, connected the U.S. demonstrations to recent debates over racism within Kuwaiti society that have roiled social media. “Let us take what is happening today in terms of hatred and riots in the United States as a lesson for us here in Kuwait and compare [the U.S. situation] to the racism practiced by some in Kuwait against our residents.”
Saudi outlet Al-Watan, which has run op-eds calling for “cleansing” the kingdom of “excess foreign workers,” featured an article by writer Ali Shuraimi directly calling out Trump for embracing racism and for “xenophobic rhetoric … causing damage that is hard to repair.” Even Okaz featured more hopeful commentary from communications academic Anmar Al-Matawa, who suggested a more positive interpretation for the term “American Spring”: “What is meant [by this term] is that society will bring forth civil laws, statutory articles, and cultural transformation after crying out ‘I cannot breathe.’ This is the ‘Spring’ that will be reflected in American society and American world politics.”
Biden will likely put weapons sales to the Gulf on the back burner, but, at the end of the day, the administration’s positions on arms sales will reflect continuity, not change.
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