Al Jazeera in the Eye of a Storm

Al Jazeera, the first state-owned pan-Arab news network, means many different things to Middle Eastern governments and citizens. The Doha-headquartered network has provided Arabs with a style of reporting that was unheard of in the region before its launch twenty-two years ago. In 2011, Al Jazeera’s coverage of Arab Spring uprisings shaped history by promoting revolutionary change and human rights-focused narratives.

In some Arabs’ eyes, Al Jazeera is a ‘watchdog for democracy’ that gives a ‘voice to the voiceless’, covering stories that are popular among large segments of Middle Eastern societies and unpopular with most Arab governments. Other Arabs view Al Jazeera as a Qatari-run propaganda network that aims to destabilize the Middle East by advancing Islamist agendas, promoting sectarian unrest, and giving airtime to hateful extremists who promote violence and intolerance.
More than five weeks into the Qatar crisis, it is clear that the members of the  Riyadh and Abu Dhabi-led bloc have different grievances with Doha stemming from their unique geopolitical challenges and relations with the emirate. Yet, as laid out in their thirteen “non-negotiable” demands issued in their bid to resolve the crisis that they triggered within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain share a strong interest in seeing Qatar shut down Al Jazeera.

The Qataris, backed by the United Nations and scores of human rights groups, have vowed to keep Al Jazeera on the air. They maintain that the network’s future is a domestic issue for Qatar and that pressure to shut it down violates Doha’s sovereignty. In a move, which some interpreted as a face-saving effort after Doha’s refusal to capitulate and a lack of international support for the thirteen demands, the Saudi/UAE-led bloc issued six broad principles to address concerns about regional security and stability. Although it is unclear if these six principles replace the thirteen demands, the broader nature of these conditions opens the door to an agreement that Doha could (depending on the details which have yet to be worked out) accept.

Not included in the six principles were some of the less realistic demands, including that Qatar sever ties with Iran and that Turkish forces exit the emirate. But where would Al Jazeera fit into these six principles? Given that the second (“suspending all acts of provocation and speeches inciting to hatred or violence”) and fifth (“refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of states and from supporting illegal entities”) principles seem geared toward closing the network, it remains unclear whether the Saudi/UAE-led bloc could accept a mediated settlement that permits the Qataris to continue broadcasting Al Jazeera.

It is also unclear whether the thirteen demands and/or six principles call for shutting down Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA) and its sister network Al Jazeera English (AJE), which launched in 2006, and/or other sister networks. To be sure, AJA is subject to legitimate criticism when it comes to having a pro-Muslim Brotherhood slant while the latter is widely recognized as more balanced and complicit with international standards of professional journalism. There are other major differences between the two. The Saudi/UAE-led bloc has not been specific in its demands when it comes to any distinction between AJA and AJE.

It is important to remember that in the past Qatari officials have made compromises when it comes to Al Jazeera. The spat of 2014, which involved Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt on one side and Qatar on the other, was resolved when Qatar shut down one of Al Jazeera’s affiliates, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr (or Al Jazeera Live Egypt). It was Doha’s biggest concession that year.

Arguably, AJA has toned down its programming since 2014, exemplified by its dropping of Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s popular weekly show, “Sharia and Life,” that year. In this year’s row, however, it is unclear whether the Qataris would make any concessions on the Al Jazeera front that would meet the Saudi/UAE-led bloc’s requirements for resolving the crisis. With Qatar having proven resilient and adaptive to the new realities since the crisis erupted five weeks ago, it is unclear how many, if any, of the demands by the Saudi/UAE-led bloc it will be willing to accept. Without a resolution to the Qatar crisis, Doha on one side and the Saudi/UAE-led bloc on the other are likely to continue the mudslinging against each other via their state-owned media.

Indeed, there is a war of narratives in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy relies heavily on control of the media throughout the greater Arab world. This is one reason why Al Jazeera (mainly AJA) has been a thorn in the side of the kingdom since 1995. From Doha, political dissidents from other GCC states and Egypt, democratic activists, and Muslim Brotherhood figures began appearing on the Qatari state-owned news channel in the 1990s and 2000s to criticize the Al Saud royals, giving rise to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s initial fears of the pan-Arab network and its ability to impact narratives across Middle Eastern countries.

The ongoing GCC row is in no small part an outcome of a fundamental issue that separates Qatar from other Arab Gulf states. For Qatar, broadcasting Al Jazeera from its capital has become a pillar of Doha’s foreign policy. The network’s critical coverage of corruption, human rights, and other sensitive issues in the Middle East has earned it much love and hatred across the Arab world and beyond.

The UAE’s ambassador to Russia, Omar Ghobash, recently told the Guardian: “We do not promote the idea of press freedom. What we talk about is responsibility in speech.” Put simply, officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi want the Arabian Peninsula to be a land that is free of any media platforms that challenge the governments’ narratives. Even if Qatar exits the GCC, or if other Council members eject it from the six-member institution, the emirate’s continued broadcasting of Al Jazeera will continue to fuel tensions between Doha and other Arab capitals that accuse the network of being a Qatari state-owned channel with “blood on its hands” that provides a platform to “some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world.”

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Image: The Al Jazeera Media Network logo is seen inside its headquarters in Doha, Qatar, on June 8. (Reuters/Naseem Zeitoon)