US orders AJ+ to register as 'foreign agent', on day UAE-Israel sign deal in Washington

US orders AJ+ to register as 'foreign agent', on day UAE-Israel sign deal in Washington
AJ+ is a digital news platform, which has been a frequent target of UAE criticism.
3 min read
16 September, 2020
AJ+ is part of the Al Jazeera Media Network [Getty]
Digital broadcaster AJ+ has been ordered by the US government to register as a "foreign agent", sparking concerns the restrictions could be part of a deal between the UAE and Israel.

On Monday, the justice department informed the US-based broadcaster it must register as a foreign agent, a day before Israel and UAE inked the normalisation agreement at the White House.

AJ+ is part of Al Jazeera, which the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt have demanded be closed after the quartet launched a blockade on Qatar in 2017.

This led the Al Jazeera Media Network to accuse Washington of making AJ+ subject to the Foreign Agents Registration Act as part of the so-called Israel-UAE Abraham Accord.

"The U.A.E. has confirmed it presented the United States with preconditions prior to announcing the Abraham Accords, and we received [department of justice] letter the day before the U.A.E. signed the Accords," the network said in a statement.

"Hobbling Al Jazeera was one of the top conditions of the U.A.E.'s blockade against Qatar and the Justice Department just gave the U.A.E. what it wanted."

It also insisted that AJ+ is independent and that it was considering its response to the move.

The letter from the justice department accused AJ+ - which broadcasts in English, Arabic, French and Spanish - of engaging in "political activities" on behalf of the Qatari government, Mother Jones reported on Tuesday.

In a letter informing the AJ+ about the move, the justice department alleged that Al Jazeera funds and appoints the online platform's management.

The announcement sparked surprise from a high-level Qatari delegation - led by Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani - who were in Washington as part of meetings aimed at strengthening ties between the two countries, The New York Times reported.

The announcement has led to Middle East analysts and commentators to also suggest the move is politically-motivated.

US law firm Akin Gump - which is registered as a foreign agent of the UAE - has, on behalf of Abu Dhabi, led lobbying efforts against Al Jazeera in Washington, according to Mother Jones.

The law firm and other pro-UAE lobby groups have reportedly received $56 million from Abu Dhabi since the UAE launched its blockade on Qatar, with the shuttering of Al Jazeera a key demand of the quartet.

Al Jazeera has been critical of the UAE's role in supporting autocrats and counter-revolutionary movements in the Middle East.

Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle Eastern politics scholar at the Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said that silencing Al Jazeera remains a key policy aim of Abu Dhabi.

"The UAE dislikes Al Jazeera partly for the narrative that the network provides across the Arab and Islamic world that exposes audiences to a point of view that is very different from the messaging the Emiratis have been trying to impose on the region since the Arab Spring," he told Mother Jones.

"In the eyes of Qatar's critics, Al Jazeera has also become so synonymous with Qatar in the regional and international mindset that any setback to Al Jazeera cannot but be perceived as a blow to Qatar."

On 14 August, the UAE and Israel publically announced they had agreed to formally normalise relations, after decades of covert relations. 

A month later and Bahrain said it would also establish diplomatic ties with Israel, with officials from the two Gulf states and Israel signing the normalisation agreements in the White House on Tuesday.

US President Donald Trump initially backed the 2017 blockade on Qatar, while then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempted to assert Washington's support for Gulf ally Qatar.

It later emerged that Saudi Arabia planned to invade its Gulf neighbour until the US officials stepped in.

Qatar this week ruled out normalising ties with Israel, while Palestinians live under Israeli occupation.

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