• Reports
  • January 4, 2008
  • 7 minutes read

Al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia

Al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia

I”ve gotten a lot of calls from journalists over the last year or two with questions about alleged changes in al-Jazeera. To me, the best indication that little had really changed was that half wanted to talk about al-Jazeera”s turn in a more radical Islamist direction and the other half wanted to talk about al-Jazeera”s turn in a more pro-American direction. At the same time!

Al-Jazeera”s Western and conservative Arab critics like to highlight station director Wadah Khanfar”s alleged Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Hamas inclinations, and make wild claims about the growing number of Muslim Brotherhood members working at the station. Its Arabist and Islamist critics like to point to its changing coverage of al-Qaeda (such as its controversial distortion of Osama bin Laden”s October video, which absolutely enraged al-Qaeda supporters and drew direct criticism from both Ayman Zawahiri and bin Laden himself), to last year”s appointment of a new board of directors dominated by Qataris and pro-American figures, and to the presumed urgency of getting al-Jazeera English access to the American market.

From my own viewing of the station and from talking with various al-Jazeera people, I”ve always been skeptical of both the “radicalizing” and the “pro-Americanizing” claims. Al-Jazeera has always thrived on diversity and clashing viewpoints, on generating controversy and airing heated debates about touchy subjects, and on covering the news from an Arab nationalist standpoint. From the cacophany of its talk shows, it has always been as easy to pick out examples of radical discourse and claim that they are representative as it is to pick out examples of pro-American coverage and claim that al-Jazeera is “changing.” Most of the alleged changes, it seems to me, have more to do with the region”s changing political realities. If al-Jazeera is giving less coverage to democratic activists, that”s probably because those democratic movements have largely been crushed over the last year as authoritarian states have tightened their grip. If al-Jazeera”s coverage of Iraq is less bloody, that”s probably because there”s less violence to cover.

The one change which I do think is real, though, is the one covered by Robert Worth in today”s New York Times: the disappearance of the often absurd Saudi-Qatari feud which has characterized the Arab media since al-Jazeera”s launch:

For the past three months Al Jazeera, which once infuriated the Saudi royal family with its freewheeling newscasts, has treated the kingdom with kid gloves, media analysts say.

The newly cautious tone appears to have been dictated to Al Jazeera’s management by the rulers of Qatar, where Al Jazeera has its headquarters.

“The gulf nations now feel they are all in the same boat, because of the threat of Iran, and the chaos of Iraq and America’s weakness,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “So the Qataris agreed to give the Saudis assurances about Al Jazeera’s coverage.”

Those assurances, Mr. Alani added, were given at a September meeting in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and top officials in the Qatari government. For the meeting, aimed at resolving a long-simmering feud between the nations, the Qataris brought along an unusual guest: the chairman of Al Jazeera’s board, Sheik Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani.

Al Jazeera’s general manager, Waddah Khanfar, did not reply to phone and e-mail requests for comment. But several employees confirmed that the chairman of the board had attended the meeting. They declined to give their names, citing the delicacy of the issue. The governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia have remained silent on the matter.

Repercussions were soon felt at Al Jazeera.

“Orders were given not to tackle any Saudi issue without referring to the higher management,” one Jazeera newsroom employee wrote in an e-mail message. “All dissident voices disappeared from our screens.”

The employee noted that coverage of Saudi Arabia was always politically motivated at Al Jazeera — in the past, top management used to sometimes force-feed the reluctant news staff negative material about Saudi Arabia, apparently to placate the Qatari leadership. But he added that the recent changes were seen in the newsroom as an even more naked assertion of political will.

“To improve their relations with Qatar, the Saudis wanted to silence Al Jazeera,” he wrote. “They got what they wanted.”

The changes at Al Jazeera are part of a broader reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In December, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal announced that Saudi Arabia would send an ambassador back to Qatar for the first time since 2002. Also in December, the Saudis attended the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Doha, Qatar’s capital, which they had refused to do the last time it was held there. The Saudis have also indicated that they may allow Al Jazeera to open a bureau in Riyadh.

In other words, al-Jazeera”s shifting coverage of Saudi Arabia appears to be both an important indicator of and a major cost of the revitalized GCC approach towards Iran and the United States which I wrote about for today”s Christian Science Monitor. I doubt it will last long, given the history of Qatari-Saudi relations and the unlikelihood of prolonged GCC unity. But for now, there are three points to make.

First, one can only rejoice if this means that viewers will no longer be subjected to the absurdities of the Saudi-Qatari feud (with al-Jazeera covering someone arrested for littering in Riyadh, followed by an al-Arabiya expose of a man picking his nose in Doha). Second, that joy is tempered by the fact that this will remove one of the only real sources of independent media scrutiny of Saudi politics. Third, and most important, it remains to be seen whether the specific changes towards Saudi Arabia will spill over into the coverage of other parts of the region and the world. If so, then an important era in Arab politics will really have come to an end, at least for now. As at the beginning of this post, I remain skeptical about the broader claims about change. But it”s certainly something to keep an eye on.