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Al Jazeera’s World Cup

Qatar politics

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By LEE SMITH
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His main targets were the so-called “conservative” Arab regimes, U.S. allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, whom Nasser accused of all sorts of treacheries. Most famously, the Egyptian president continuously incited the Iraqi people to rise against their government, which they finally did in 1958. The mobs tore Prime Minister Nuri al-Said to pieces, while Nasser punched holes in the Eisenhower administration’s regional policy, which had invested heavily in Nuri and the Baghdad Pact. According to Michael Doran, a former Bush White House aide writing a book about Eisenhower’s Arab strategy, “The irony was that the Americans had effectively handed Nasser the means to dispose of Nuri. The CIA itself had set up the Egyptian ruler’s radio station, Voice of the Arabs.”

This time around, it wasn’t Washington that paved the way for an Arab information operation, but Atlanta. When CNN’s coverage of Operation Desert Storm won a wide audience in the Middle East, the BBC set up an Arabic satellite network. When the BBC effort ran into difficulty, the emir of Qatar hired much of its staff and in 1996 started Al Jazeera.

Many American analysts have misunderstood the nature of Al Jazeera. The standard academic interpretation is that the network has opened up public debate and thereby changed the culture of Arab media and Arab politics. The fact that bloggers and journalists are still regularly jailed throughout the region suggests that Al Jazeera has not led to more freedom of speech in the Arab world. But that was never its point. Like Voice of the Arabs, it was a political instrument from the start, aimed at regional rivals, especially at the Middle East’s major Sunni power, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi policy is to use money to make things happen. For instance, it is a fairly well-known tactic for Arab press entrepreneurs to insult members of the Saudi royal family until they decide to pay for silence, thereby effectively bankrolling a media start-up. This is what the Qataris did with Al Jazeera, except they were less interested in money than in the kind of power that would ensue from attacking the religious and financial center of the Sunni Arab Middle East. 

The Saudis did their best to quiet Al Jazeera, even banning advertisers from taking out spots on the Doha network. Since the wealthy Saudi market accounts for more than 90 percent of advertising on the pan-Arab networks, that meant Al Jazeera was almost bereft of advertising. But that didn’t matter to the emir, who merely increased the budget. It was when the Qataris told the Saudis that they were going to push the conflict beyond politics and dig up dirt on the royal family that Riyadh got serious. If the Qataris were going to air Saudi laundry, then Riyadh would do the same to Doha. The Saudis’ deterrent was Al Arabiya, the Dubai-based pan-Arab news network. Al Arabiya is known for its relatively pro-American views but that’s largely just a function of its acting to counter Al Jazeera, the world’s most famous anti-American network. 

Just because CENTCOM has a Doha base hardly means that Qatar is much of an ally. Some observers suggest that the emir is playing both sides by hosting the U.S. military at the same time that his network broadcasts fatwas justifying killing American soldiers. The reason, it is said, is that Qatar wants to stay out of the way of any confrontation between the United States and Iran, its neighbor. But just because the Qataris play both sides doesn’t mean they’re neutral.

“If it was neutral, or pro-American, or moderate, it wouldn’t be able to project power in the region,” says Elie Nakouzi, formerly a senior anchor with Al Arabiya. “The station needs to show it is behind what are perceived to be Muslim and Arab causes. Maybe the emir stands alongside President Obama, but Al Jazeera is next to bin Laden.”

Nakouzi remembers how when Hezbollah and Israel went to war in 2006 he was trying to get an interview with Hassan Nasrallah. “I know lots of people in Hezbollah,” Nakouzi says. “But there was no way to get to Nasrallah. ‘Nasrallah doesn’t know where Nasrallah is,’ they told me. All of a sudden, he’s doing an interview with Al Jazeera, and I knew it was more than a scoop. It meant that Qatar was playing a political role,” i.e., being helpful to Hezbollah’s sponsors in Tehran.

Qatar was there again two years later, after Hezbollah overran Beirut in May 2008. The negotiations between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s pro-Western government took place in Doha. There the emir brokered a deal that many believe wrongly rewarded an organization that had resorted to bloodshed when it couldn’t win through regular political channels. Presumably, all that mattered to the emir was that he, rather than the traditional Arab powers and U.S. allies  like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was in the center of things, tiny Qatar—thanks to the giant Al Jazeera.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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