It wouldn't be outlandish to say that Al Jazeera is a political project masquerading in the guise of journalism. The claim, however, doesn't detract from the news outlet's achievements. Al Jazeera changed the rules of traditional Arab journalism with its motto, "the opinion ... and the other opinion." And along the way, it brought outsize international attention — and scrutiny — to a tiny country in the Persian Gulf.
Managing an Overbearing Ally
When Saudi Arabia led the effort to found the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, it envisioned itself serving as an adviser to its smaller neighbors. The kingdom's royals felt entitled to a prominent role in GCC affairs because of their country's geographic size, relatively large population, vast oil wealth and custodianship of Islam's two holiest shrines. Over time, though, Saudi Arabia's domineering attitude gave rise to deep yet subtle resentment among fellow member states that would occasionally flare up, revealing, if only momentarily, the cracks in the bloc's veneer of brotherhood.
Qatar, wedged between Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, is among the GCC members most vulnerable to the kingdom's influence. The Iraqi army's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 served as a cogent reminder of the perils it faced as a small state in the shadow of a much larger power. And so, Qatar tried to turn its size to its advantage.
The country strove to carve a niche for itself as a maverick in Gulf affairs and on pan-Arab issues, operating on the assumption that it could get away with being unorthodox. It sponsored and hosted Islamic movements that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates frowned on, opened up to political systems they disliked and launched bold initiatives such as the Education City. At the same time, Qatar worked to make a name for itself on the world stage to overcome the vulnerabilities of its size and location. It won the 2022 World Cup bid, established a competitive airline and worked to transform Doha into a hub for finance and real estate investment. Perhaps worst of all for its uneasy GCC neighbors, it launched Al Jazeera.
A New Standard
The network couldn't have made its debut anywhere but Qatar. Ironically, though, it might never have gotten off the ground were it not for Saudi Arabia. In the 1990s, the kingdom decided to drop its sponsorship of BBC Arabic, which went too far in promoting political openness and critical reporting for the royal family's comfort. The decision put "150 talented BBC-trained Arab presenters, writers, producers and technicians" back on the job market, as the channel's former managing editor, Ian Richardson, recently explained in the Guardian, giving Al Jazeera its choice of skilled personnel.
Newly staffed up, the fledgling network fashioned itself after Sawt al-Arab (or "Voice of the Arabs"), the radio station that then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser founded in Cairo in 1953. Qatar's emir hoped to use Al Jazeera, much as Nasser used Sawt al-Arab, to advance his image as the pre-eminent pan-Arab leader. To that end, the network adopted a mission in 2004 that prioritized truth and objectivity in its reporting to "support people's right to knowledge, and to strengthen the values of democracy and respect of liberties and human rights."
Al Jazeera's lofty claims stood in stark contrast to the emir's approach to governing. Critics denounced the project; to spend so much money spreading democracy throughout the Arab world seemed disingenuous for a government that didn't practice what it preached at home. Qatar, after all, does not recognize pluralism. The government prohibits political parties and jails dissidents. In 2012, a court in the country sentenced Mohammed al-Ajami, a poet, to life in prison for praising the Arab Spring uprisings. More recently, Qatari authorities have imposed travel restrictions on prominent human rights lawyer and activist Najeeb al-Nuaimi. Qatar's interest in promoting knowledge, democracy and liberty went no further than Al Jazeera's broadcasts.
But that didn't stop the network from achieving its goal. Al Jazeera made a splash in the Arab world, quickly setting itself apart from its rivals by giving its viewers what they wanted to hear rather than delivering the same dry, monotonous reporting. The network presented stories on issues that other outlets couldn't or wouldn't touch because of government censorship. As a result, its popularity grew. Knowing how to appeal to its audience gave the network far more political influence than Qatar itself exercised on the global stage, just as Doha intended.
The Cost of Success
Even if the scope of its reportage is more liberal than that of its peers, however, Al Jazeera isn't immune to politics. The network revised its strategy and policies in 2007, to the detriment of its journalistic integrity. Three years later, five female presenters resigned from their positions at Al Jazeera, citing restrictions on their editorial autonomy among the reasons for leaving the station. (The resignees also complained of comments that higher-ups had made about their attire; Al Jazeera observes a strict and modest dress code.) One of the women, Lebanese TV anchor Lina Zahr Eddine, described the network as a political project par excellence — an account that came as little surprise. In recent years, the management has obstructed the editorial team's efforts to select its own topics for reporting.
Its claims to objectivity, in turn, have become more and more tenuous. During the Arab Spring uprisings, for example, Al Jazeera devoted more coverage to some protests than to others. It reported extensively on the events in Egypt and in Libya, where it sided with the demonstrators rallying against Moammar Gadhafi's administration. In Bahrain and Oman, by contrast, it took a more even-handed approach while downplaying the scale of the protests. And the network refrained altogether from reporting on the unrest in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province — or on Saudi security forces' fierce response. Since Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani came to power in June 2013, he has taken further precautions to ensure that Al Jazeera doesn't offend Qatar's fellow GCC members. The channel has censored its reporting to avoid antagonizing its neighbors.
Nevertheless, many of the bloc's rulers still view the network as a threat to the political stability they prize above all else. Qatar's critics in the GCC have derided Al Jazeera as a propagator of confusion and hyperbole. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies in the blockade against Qatar, moreover, have called on Doha to shutter the outlet as a condition for resuming relations. The UAE minister of state for federal national affairs said in July that at the very least the news outlet must change its policies and practices if it is going to remain in operation. The Emirati minister for foreign affairs added that Abu Dhabi's complaints with Al Jazeera center not on differences of opinion but on the network's "inflammatory rhetoric," which incites "hatred and violence."
These comments speak to Al Jazeera's success as a tool to distinguish Qatar from its fellow GCC states and to buck Saudi Arabia's authority. But they also highlight the costs of that success. If Qatar wants to realize its ambitions as a leader in the Arab world and end the blockade against it, it may have to give up its quest for truth in broadcasting and yield to the Saudi political line.