Al-Jazeera: torn by Arab regional tensions

Al-Jazeera: torn by Arab regional tensionsTemps de lecture estimé : 6 min

June 5, 2017; rude awakening for Qatar. No less than 10 Persian Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, decide to sever all diplomatic relations with Doha (the Qatari capital). All land, air and sea borders are closed, as well as the offices of news network Al-Jazeera in Riyad (Saudi Arabia’s capital). In June, Qatar received an ultimatum: they had to agree to 13 conditions intended to ease regional tensions. One of them was to shut down the entire Al-Jazeera company. Les Décryptages explain how the “Arab CNN” became the center of international political demands.

Thunderous beginning

In 1996, Hamad Ben Khalifa, Qatar’s head of armed forces, decided to unseat Khalifa Ben Hamad – his own father – and to seize power. He then started to actively modernize the young emirate, which had gained independence in 1971. Modernization included increased visibility for Qatar on the regional and international stage, and this happened via a two-word tool: “Al-Jazeera”.

Literally meaning “the island” in Arabic, Al-Jazeera news network had one goal: to end the Saudi hegemony on Arab TV. It set about becoming the first Arabic-speaking news channel, reaching far beyond the Gulf. In the entire Arab region, from Morocco to Algeria to Cisjordania, Arabic-speaking journalists were poached by the growing Qatari firm. The news are now produced in Arabic, by Arabs, for Arabs.

Success built gradually. In 2008, Al-Jazeera was watched daily by 30 to 40 million people. Celebrities, like Fayçal Al Kaceem, moderate impassioned debates over political, religious, cultural, and economic issues, which sometimes end in live altercations. The chain truly reflects the arab world, down to the tiniest detail…

Before Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV industry was controlled by two distinct spheres. First the BBC, a single British news operation with an international-oriented continuous feed. Second, a series of national chains, each controlled by its government, and each unapologetically praising its current regime. Al-Jazeera positions itself between these two spheres: no apparent government control, and no foreign control.

This “independent” editorial line serves the company’s image: calling the network “island” was not random. The apparent lack of ties ensures news “objectivity”, and insularity is promoted. The slogan conveys a similar message: with Al-Jazeera, you get “the opinion, and its contrary”.

“Independence and its contrary” ?

Compared to other Arab channels, Al-Jazeera seems to have a different, remarkable tone. As early as 1998, Al-Jazeera breaks with the usual editorial line of the Arab media landscape by publishing its own images of bombings in Irak, while other chains downplay the damages caused by the attacks.

However, Al-Jazeera is at the heart of a controversy, accused by its competitors of “providing a loudspeaker to islamism”. After the September 11 attacks, the Qatari channel notably showed videos filmed and sent by Oussama Ben Laden himself. Years later, this reputation led Mohamed Mera to send videos of his massacres of children from the Ozar Hatorah school, that Al-Jazeera chose not to broadcast.

Opponents to Al-Jazeera also question its independency. Since it is a tool of the Qatari soft Power, the network leaders cannot choose themselves which images to publish. Each coverage of external events seems to be consciously thought out. Indeed, it is easy to guess the state of diplomatic relations between Qatar and its neighbours by looking at the angle used to cover foreign events.

Al-Jazeera has even shown support for and given a platform to people strongly opposed to particular regimes. The show “Charia and life”, features Youcef Al-Qardawi, a preacher from the Muslim Brothers movement. The brotherhood is considered a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government. No doubt such support from this media was one of the main reasons why Egypt joined Saudi Arabia in the recent diplomatic spat with Qatar. In other words, Qatar seems to have a more or less discrete control over Al-Jazeera’s editorial line. Last but not least, Al-Qardawi is also renowned for provocative positions that led to his forbidding of European countries.

Meanwhile, there are no articles about the Qatari state. Human rights, wealth inequalities… “Al-Jazeera” talks about other countries but remains mum on Qatar.


The future was bright for Al-Jazeera. Viewers were many, the chain was in a situation of quasi-monopoly in the Arab news media industry. It was a true empire in process of building up.

Al-Jazeera soon had two little twin sisters in the UK and Bosnia. The sports channel Al-Jazeera Sport was then born, allowing international development. Likewise, BeInsport was created in France, seriously hurting older, monopoly-like networks such as Canal+. The American subsidiary of the channel with a gold logo, Al-Jazeera America was also created, with a French subsidiary soon to follow.

Each channel has a specific editorial line depending on its audience. For instance, Al-Jazeera English tends to lend a voice to Third World countries with numerous correspondents in Africa and Asia. The style of these channels is more restrained, with less polemic shows than the original one.

Threatening influence

This fast expansion also brings tensions. Particularly in Saudi Arabia, scared by the prospect of increasing Qatari influence, beyond the Persian Gulf boundaries.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia has always had expansionist views in the region; Qatar is one of the emirates most threatened by this goal. In 1921, Ibn Séoud, founder of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom, set about taking the Qatari land. He was stopped by a strong refusal from the British colonies, and Qatar’s existence is only due to the British presence in the region. For Saudi Arabia, which considered the emirate was part of its own territory, an ambitious emancipation can be perceived as an humiliation. Particularly when Qatar shows pride and becomes a real competitor in terms of regional influence. Thus, the very existence of Al-Jazeera proves to be a factor that can damage relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Is the island sinking ?

Al-Jazeera seems to have encountered many difficulties these past few years. First, competition keeps increasing. Many national news channels get more viewers everyday, robbing the qatari channel of precious percentage points.

Besides, the coverage of the Arab Spring by the golden channel, accused of supporting islamist candidates in the elections, may have caused significant loss of audience.

Finally, the success of Al-Jazeera’s business expansionism should also be questioned. In 2016, during a time of decreasing fossil fuel prices, several hundred employees were laid off. It was also hard for Al-Jazeera America to find its audience, so much so that the American channel folded in April 2016.

The request from the anti-Qatar coalition appears to be the last straw: the definite end of the company is required. Qatar would lose a powerful tool for boosting its global exposure. Nonetheless, the chain has not made any declaration on its potential end. It remains to be seen whether the editorial line will be changed, which could help Qatar alleviate the consequences of the regional exclusion.

Read the original french article, written by Yunews, here :

Lucile Jourde Moalic