On Monday a bold and controversial experiment in Middle Eastern media and politics may be abruptly brought to an end. Al-Jazeera – once heralded as the beacon of free Arab media that broke the hegemony of the western networks and reversed the flow of information from east to west for the first time since the middle ages – faces closing its doors for good.
On 23 June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt subjected Qatar to unprecedented diplomatic and economic sanctions, followed by an aggressive blockade and threats of further action if Qatar fails to meet a list of 13 demands, one of which is to shut down the al-Jazeera network.
If Doha capitulates – and there are no signs it will – it will effectively have lost its sovereignty and become a vassal state of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Yet defying the deadline could lead to regime change in Qatar, or even war.
Whatever happens, it is a credit to al-Jazeera that, 21 years after its launch, it is still so disruptive and challenging to those in power. Few other media outlets can claim to be so influential. But al-Jazeera is not like other broadcasters. It is a unique phenomenon which, since it started broadcasting in 1996, has revolutionised the Arab media, and in 2010 played a major role in bringing about a real political revolution across much of the Arab world.
Before al-Jazeera started broadcasting, Arab television news was totalitarian drivel. The news chiefly focused on what the sheikh, emir or president was doing that day, some news about his heir, and a puff piece about how lucky the nation was to have such heroic father figures. Al-Jazeera blew all this away, allowing all kinds of previously banned voices to be heard, from the Israelis and Muammar Gaddafi to Chechen rebels, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
In its glory days, Arab cities would go noticeably quieter when Dr Faisal al-Qassem’s The Opposite Direction show came on air, and the network’s long list of scoops includes its coverage of Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998, a post-9/11 interview with bin Laden, and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, when al-Jazeera was the only TV network present in the country and for a few weeks became news agency to the world.
Al-Jazeera was the first Arab channel to introduce proper investigative journalism and the first to entertain all kinds of previously off-limits guests on its talk shows, tackling controversial topics such as suicide bombing and the existence of God. Such iconoclasm demolished social, political and religious taboos and set a new standard of reporting in the region. It introduced concepts like democracy and human rights and drastically pushed back the boundaries of free speech.
It also deeply disturbed other governments in the region since none of them, with the exception of post-revolutionary Tunisia, enjoys a popular democratic mandate and they fear anything that might weaken their grip on power. A stream of never-ending diplomatic crises kicked off between Qatar and every other country in the region except Oman, as well as many non-Arab nations. The network’s myriad enemies used every trick in the book to try to shut it down, from arresting correspondents and closing bureaus to deporting family members of employees, harassing potential advertisers, launching frivolous lawsuits and, in the case of the US, bombing its offices twice and killing members of its staff.
After years of failing to make an impact, Arab governments finally realised that the only way to deal with al-Jazeera is to beat it at its own game, which is why in 2003 Saudi Arabia started arch rival al-Arabiya TV. Since no reliable viewing data is available we cannot know for sure which of the two is the more popular today. Despite al-Jazeera currently being banned in Egypt – the most populous Arab country – arguably it is still al-Jazeera, but naturally al-Arabiya disputes this.
It is important to remember that al-Jazeera is not the only bone of contention between Qatar and its neighbours. Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be the world’s only two Wahhabi states, but they also have numerous historical and ideological differences, as evidenced by the list of 13 demands. Al-Jazeera is on the list because it is such a powerful symbol of Qatar and the most visible manifestation of Qatari policymaking. But there is a deeper reason, which for westerners to understand they must consider that al-Jazeera has two faces – one Arabic and one English – and it is the Arabic face that creates all the problems in Qatar’s neighbourhood.
The English face of al-Jazeera is one westerners have grown familiar with: the al-Jazeera English channel and website, high quality news and sophisticated documentaries focused on the developing world. Compared with alternative English-language international news channels, such as BBC World, CNN International, France 24, and Russia Today, most observers agree al-Jazeera English scores highly.
The biggest failure of al-Jazeera’s English language operation so far has been its inability to crack the US market, but even the BBC struggles there and this is probably more a reflection on the level of sophistication of the average US viewer, rather than al-Jazeera’s output. In the UK, where we are comparatively spoilt for quality media, AJE is widely regarded as one of the leading broadcasters, a worthwhile alternative to the BBC, Sky or Channel 4.
Beyond also being a 24-hour news channel, al-Jazeera Arabic (AJA) is a very different beast in terms of language, content and frame of reference to al-Jazeera English. This is hardly surprising given that they are aimed at entirely different audiences.
What makes Qatar’s neighbours uncomfortable about AJA is the channel’s success in forging a new political awareness among Arabs and raising issues, such as social justice and human rights. What they find particularly distasteful is the widely propagated view, shared by the Qatari leadership, that sooner or later Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas will come to power across the whole region, propelled either by revolution or democratic elections.
Since this is also an issue of concern for Israel and many others in the west, it is a point Qatar’s Arab neighbours have focused on, although since Hamas is popular with the Arab public it was not named in the list of demands.
Given that on the few occasions Sunni Arab countries have been able to hold free and fair elections Islamist parties have usually won, even though they are not often allowed to take or hold power for long, Qatar’s assumption that one day they will come to power is not unrealistic. But for Qatar’s neighbours it is heretical.
The Arab regimes persecuting Qatar today – the counter-revolutionary axis in the region – are all vulnerable to being overthrown by popular revolution and replaced by Islamist groups, so seeing these same groups presented as legitimate political opposition on al-Jazeera and being allowed to agitate for political change represents a clear existential threat.
The counter-revolutionary axis expends significant resources suppressing and demonising many of the same individuals and groups – “terrorists” – to which al-Jazeera gives voice. The problem for them is that Qatar seems to be on the right side of history.
Arabs generally are fed up with their corrupt and useless unelected governments and are ready for any alternative in future, as long as it looks nothing like the past. Many Sunni Arabs, liberals and Islamists alike, find al-Jazeera’s democratic, Islamist discourse and optimistic vision of the future much more inspiring than the visions their widely hated and feared governments are peddling.
Qatar, of course, is also an autocratic government, but since it is so small and rich, normal rules do not apply to it. This is why it has shown no sign of giving in to any of the demands placed on it, even though the deadline expires on Monday.
Hugh Miles is the author of Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. He is a Cairo-based freelance journalist specialising in the Middle East, and editor of ArabDigest.org
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010