Amid all the talk of Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, at the core of the Gulf Arab countries’ ongoing blockade of the oil- and gas-rich emirate is one major source of contention: Al Jazeera.
A central demand of the Gulf states lead by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – relayed by mediator Kuwait and allegedly leaked by Qatar – is for the Gulf country to “close Al Jazeera network and its affiliates.” Other key demands: downgrading ties with Iran and closing a Turkish military base in Doha.
Why the intense focus on the pan-Arab TV network?
Funded and launched through loans and grants from the Qatari government, even those who are not critics say it is at times hard to determine where Doha-based Al Jazeera ends and Qatar's interests begin. However, network officials say they have had complete editorial freedom over the past two decades.
Despite its more recent, brief foray into the American cable news market, Al Jazeera’s reputation in the West is still colored by the aftermath of 9/11, when the network’s inclusive coverage was seen as providing a platform for leaders of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, particularly Osama bin Laden.
But Al Jazeera was and is controversial in the Arab world for a much different reason. When launched in 1996, the network was seen as a revolutionary force bucking a largely conservative and autocratic status quo.
In an era in which state-run media dominated the Arab world, Al Jazeera for the first time broadcast differing views and opinions, and raised political awareness.
Today, with the long-term stability of many Gulf regimes far from secure, experts say states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are exerting all their diplomatic and economic might to bring an end to Al Jazeera in a vain bid to close its Pandora’s box of democratic and liberal social values.
The other opinion
When Al Jazeera formed in 1996, the media landscape in the Arab world was bleak.
State-run TV stations that broadcast propaganda and the regimes’ version of events were the only accessible news. Opposition parties, unionists, analysts, and even average citizens who dared to contradict the official party line on everything from the Palestinians to bread prices were banned.
“Arab TV did not even have live interviews – state TV could trust their anchors, but they couldn’t even trust interviewees to carry the party line,” says Daoud Kuttab, a veteran Palestinian journalist and executive board member of the International Press Institute, a Vienna-based organization that advocates for press freedom.
The monopoly on information served autocratic Arab regimes, none more so than Gulf Arab countries, which used state-run newspapers, broadcasters, and clerics to dictate positions on social issues, discourage dissent, and cement the leaders’ image as benevolent rulers.
But when staffers of the recently shuttered BBC Arabic Television launched Al Jazeera, the old rules of Arab media were thrown out.
Opposition politicians were allowed to speak. Everyday citizens, and their economic and political struggles, were highlighted. Analysts say it shook the Gulf states to their core.
“These regimes are not elected, they fear anything that relaxes their grip on power, and they have the media under tight control – Al Jazeera blew that all away,” says Hugh Miles, editor of Arab Digest.org and author of “Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World.”
“It is a direct existential threat to their system.”
Program presenters and their guests openly discussed democracy, human rights, corruption, and citizens’ rights – what many call a “political awakening” in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Under its motto, “the opinion and the other opinion,” Al Jazeera expanded its approach to international affairs, exposing the Arab public for the first time to competing views on issues across the world. For every Osama bin Laden video tape, there was a rival Northern Alliance fighter. It interviewed Hamas spokesmen and Israeli generals. For every fiery cleric there was a secularist, or even an atheist.
“We never knew there was an opposition in Libya, we didn’t know there were Kurds in Syria or heard from Shiites – all these minority and opposition groups that were gagged were given a voice,” Mr. Kuttab says.
Platform for Islamists
By including a diverse array of voices, the network highlighted the contradictions in Gulf states’ foreign policy – often tied to their major ally, the US, and unpopular with Arab publics – such as toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war.
The station’s willingness to bring in different voices led Arab governments to label the station alternatively as a tool of the CIA, a Mossad creation, a propaganda arm for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, or an Al Qaeda mouthpiece.
Al Jazeera’s focus on the political opposition also gave a substantial platform to Islamists, who for decades had been marginalized and pressured by Arab regimes.
The station gave particular space for the Muslim Brotherhood, which called for political openings in the region. The Brotherhood was identified by Gulf regimes as the greatest threat to their Arab allies and the only true opposition force that could one day challenge their rule at home.
These fears would only grow following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, during which Al Jazeera was criticized for devoting a substantial amount of positive coverage to the post-revolution Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and to the Islamists in Tunisia and Libya – putting Qatar at odds with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would prefer that clerics from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood not have any Arab media outlet which can serve as their platform to deliver messages to citizens not only of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but also the greater Arab world,” Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of the DC-based Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy, says via email.
Although Al Jazeera host and benefactor Qatar follows a conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam, Al Jazeera has provided airtime for diverse views, encouraging debates on theological and practical daily issues.
The airing of differing views on Islam has been a blow to Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, which rely on their control of the religious establishment to cement their legitimacy – using an army of paid clerics to sell their policies and praise their leadership.
Friday sermons in Saudi Arabia have been used to promote its catastrophic war in Yemen, stir up sectarian hatred of Iran, and to ensure fealty to kings and princes.
“Al Jazeera makes these regimes look stupid, it undoes all their work by getting on sheikhs that are more individually minded and democratically inclined,” says Mr. Miles, the editor and author.
“They are attacking their religious legitimacy, which is extremely sensitive.”
Al Jazeera has addressed social issues and taboos often discussed in heated debates at home but never broadcast on-air: honor killings, the plight of migrant workers, suicide bombings, sexual harassment.
“We opened a huge debate and exposed a lot of contradictions in the well-established orthodoxy of traditional organizations, including political and religious groups,” says Wadah Khanfar, former director general of Al Jazeera from 2003 to 2011.
“Al Jazeera not only confronted governments, but religious authorities and social structures to address the issue of women’s place in society, our relationship with the West, and other matters which are preventing our society from progressing to democratic states.”
Gulf states have seen Al Jazeera’s potency by its aggressive coverage of, and according to many analysts, catalyzing of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, which included smaller-scale but threatening protests that hit Gulf states Bahrain, Oman, and parts of Saudi Arabia.
“What we are seeing today is a realization by these governments that if these voices continue, they are going to see more crowds, more public insisting of rights,” Mr. Khanfar says.
It has yet to be seen if the Gulf Arabs’ campaign can succeed in censoring Al Jazeera or shutting it down altogether. Previous attempts to launch competing networks, such as Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya, have failed to rival Al Jazeera’s reach. Meanwhile, a generation of social media activists and citizen journalists, taking their cue from Al Jazeera, continue to work through sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
“The factors which made Al Jazeera so popular among Arabs years ago will not disappear,” says the Gulf State Analytics’ Mr. Cafiero, “raising questions about how much Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could even achieve politically from successfully pressuring Doha.”