- Other Issues
- January 13, 2008
- 8 minutes read
Al Jazeera No Longer Nips at Saudis
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When a Saudi court sentenced a young woman to 200 lashes in November after she pressed charges against seven men who had raped her, the case provoked outrage and headlines around the world, including in the Middle East.But not at Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s leading satellite television channel, seen by 40 million people. The station’s silence was especially noteworthy because until recently, and unlike almost all other Arab news outlets, Al Jazeera had long been willing — eager, in fact — to broadcast fierce criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s rulers.
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. Although those rulers established the channel a decade ago in large part as a forum for critics of the Saudi government, they now seem to feel they cannot continue to alienate Saudi Arabia — a fellow Sunni nation — in light of the threat from Iran across the Persian Gulf.The specter of Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be particularly daunting to tiny Qatar, which also is the site of a major American military base.
The new policy is the latest chapter in a gradual domestication of Al Jazeera, once reviled by American officials as little more than a terrorist propaganda outlet. Al Jazeera’s broadcasts no longer routinely refer to Iraqi insurgents as the “resistance,” or victims of American firepower as “martyrs.”The policy also illustrates the way the Arab media, despite the new freedoms introduced by Al Jazeera itself a decade ago, are still often treated as political tools by the region’s autocratic rulers.“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.
The feud between Qatar and its much larger neighbor, for all its pettiness, has had real consequences. It led to the creation of Al Jazeera in the first place, which in turn helped shape perceptions — and, perhaps, realities — across the Arab world and beyond over the past decade.The feud began in the mid-1990s, when the Qatari leadership accused the Saudis of supporting a failed coup attempt. Soon afterward, Al Jazeera was founded with a $150 million grant from the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and began reshaping the Arab media. The station was helped when the BBC’s Arabic-language television station, co-owned by a Saudi company, collapsed, thanks in part to Saudi censorship demands. The BBC journalists flocked to Al Jazeera.The mere establishment of the station was a challenge to the Saudis, who since the 1970s had used their oil wealth to establish control over most of the pan-Arab media in an effort to forestall the kind of populist media campaign led in earlier decades by Gamal Abdel Nasser when he was Egypt’s president, said Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University and the author of a book about Al Jazeera’s role in reshaping the Arab media.But the feud grew worse in 2002, after Al Jazeera broadcast a debate on Saudi Arabia’s policy on the Palestinian question, shortly after the unveiling of a peace initiative for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by King Abdullah, who was then the crown prince. The debate included fierce criticisms of the Saudi ruling family, and the Saudis, deeply offended, responded by withdrawing their ambassador from Qatar.
Al Jazeera’s lengthy broadcasts of videotapes by Osama bin Laden — whose cherished goal for years has been to overthrow the Saudi monarchy — also provoked the Saudis. Al Jazeera has often been accused of helping make Mr. bin Laden into a celebrity, and indirectly helping him to recruit more people across the Arab and Islamic world to his cause.An added frustration was the way Qatar benefited from Al Jazeera’s anti-Americanism, even as American military support and money poured into the tiny country.“Qatar became immensely popular during the 2003 war, because of Jazeera — despite the fact that the planning for the war was all taking place at Centcom, in Qatar,” said S. Abdallah Schleifer, a veteran American journalist and a professor emeritus at the American University of Cairo, referring to the United States Central Command.Al Jazeera’s coverage gradually evolved and grew more moderate, partly for internal reasons and partly in response to American pressure. In 2003, Al Arabiya was founded, largely as a Saudi answer to Al Jazeera. It has sometimes countered Al Jazeera’s criticisms of Saudi Arabia with attacks on Qatari policy, as have other Saudi-owned media outlets.
But the recent changes underscore how much Iran’s nuclear ambitions have affected the region.“It was the fear of a possible Iranian reprisal action, should it be attacked by the U.S., that ultimately appears to have persuaded the Qatari leadership to underline G.C.C. solidarity by mending relations with Saudi Arabia and rein in Al Jazeera’s coverage,” said Neil Partrick, a gulf analyst with the International Crisis Group, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council. On a smaller scale, the Qataris clearly wanted the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting to be a success, which it would not have been without Saudi involvement, Mr. Partrick said.Some members of Al Jazeera’s newsroom staff say they believe that the station would not ignore or play down major news developments in Saudi Arabia, whatever promises the management may have made. But other Arab journalists said Al Jazeera’s seeming willingness to toe the Saudi line was proof that there still were no truly independent media outlets in the region.“The Arab media today still play much the same role as the pre-Islamic tribal poets, whose role was to praise the tribe, not tell the truth,” said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a Dubai-based media analyst and the former editor in chief of Forbes Arabia.