Joseph Daher looks at the role of Al Jazeera as both a tool of Qatar’s political and economic interests, but which also sometimes shares sympathy with popular movements in the region.
Al Jazeera television has recently been subject to debate, following the resignation of Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s top executive since 2003. This followed disclosures from WikiLeaks indicating that he had modified the network’s coverage of the Iraq war in response to pressure from the United States. Khanfar has been replaced by Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the royal family, who is not a journalist but an executive at QatarGas, a state-affiliated natural gas producer. The issue of Wadah Kanfar’s resignation and WikiLeaks’ revelation posed a deeper question: where does Al Jazeera stand? Is the most popular Arabic television channel an independent television company supporting the people of the region in their struggle, or is it a tool and reflection of Qatar’s political and economic interests?
Al Jazeera was created in 1996 and is primarily financed by the royal family of Qatar. The channel was very successful in capturing the feelings of the people of the region, long before the uprisings in the Arab world, with its full time coverage and an editorial line mixing Pan-Arabism, Islamic feelings and a liberal perspective. It is indisputable that Al Jazeera has played a role in the democratization of the Middle East by their reports and programmes on the uprisings, arguably even fuelling them in some ways.
Al Jazeera was briefly forbidden in Egypt during the revolution, as well as elsewhere for its coverage criticising several governments. It has given a platform to various opponents of authoritarian regimes – nationalists, liberals, leftists and Islamists – while also giving a voice to officials of authoritarian regimes.
Wadah Khanfar once declared: ‘Yet we (Al Jazeera) remained steadfast in our editorial policy – in fact, each attempt to silence us further emboldened us and increased our resolve’, while since Al Jazeera’s launch in 1996 its slogan has been ‘the opinion and the other opinion’.
These positive features should not blind us to the role it played to frame public opinion to fulfill the interests of Qatar’s political interests. Qatar is a kingdom in which power is concentrated in a single family that controls the state apparatus and large strata of the economy. The so-called nationals are hardly 20 percent of the population, and 80 percent are expatriates without any rights, essentially guest workers from the Philippines and other countries, working in poor conditions.
Qatar is an ally of the US, hosting one of the most important air bases in the region. It is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional bloc of the six oil rich Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and four other countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Oman.
The popular uprising in Bahrain was crushed by state repression and the military intervention of the GCC, which was led by Saudi Arabia and backed by Qatar, in March. Qatar welcomes on its territory an Israeli commercial representation in the capital Doha, while Qatar state-owned investment firm Qatari Diar agreed to take a 5 percent stake in the company Veolia, which is on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions list for its involvement with Israeli apartheid infrastructure and transport projects.
On the other hand, Qatar has funded – directly or indirectly – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, while they maintain diplomatic relations, although difficult, with Iran. They have also very close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in various countries, and the Muslim Brotherhood is an important political force behind the political message of Al Jazeera.
The Egyptian theologian Yusuf Qaradawi is considered the spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has a programme on the channel. The Syrian scholar and opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun once criticized the role of Al Jazeera in fostering the role of Islamists in the Arab region and giving them far more space at the expense of other political forces. The revolutions have nevertheless pushed Al Jazeera to change, because of the multiplicity of political forces involved, and in which the Islamic movements were not the leading force.
Programmes critical towards GCC countries are nearly non-existent on Al Jazeera; popular demonstrations in these countries are not given any importance. Al Jazeera doesn’t allow the Saudi opposition on screen, for example.
The misleading coverage of the popular uprising in Bahrain is also a very good example. The channel gave much more space to the regime to justify its repression against an ‘Iranian coup’ than to the opposition – a very different situation to its coverage of Egypt and Tunisia.
The coverage of Libya was in favour of the rebels and for the NATO military intervention. NATO strikes on civilians and killings by rebel forces of African migrants were not given much importance in reports. Qatar was reportedly engaged in assisting the TNC forces in sending them arms, oil and money.
Qatar Special Forces had trained the TNC’s ‘Tripoli Brigade’, while it is working behind closed doors in the formation of the new Libyan government to have its close ally in top positions such as Mahmoud Jibril. He is a neoliberal economist who presided over the Gaddafi regime’s neoliberal reforms from 2007 until the uprising and who was involved in asset management for Sheikha Mozah, the politically active wife of the Emir of Qatar. The strong support from Qatar to the TNC may guarantee a chunk of oil reserves to the Emirat.
The coverage in Egypt, although clearly in favour of the revolutions, concentrated its reports and TV programs on demonstrations in Cairo and other cities, while workers strikes were given no or very few time on screen. Images of workers striking might have inspired migrant workers with poor conditions in Qatar and GCC countries to act. In the same vein, critics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have not been given much space since the resignation of Mubarak.
The political links between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhoods in various countries is clear through funding, but also in their support for broadly neo-liberal policies, the status quo with Israel and a closer relationship with the US. Al Jazeera tends to foster the role of the Muslim Brotherhoods in their respective societies among the people.
Al Jazeera’s role must be understood as a tool of Qatar’s political and economic interests, but which will sometimes share similar objectives with popular movements. The revolutions have shown us the contradictions of many actors and political groups in the region – and this includes Al Jazeera.