Closing Al Jazeera and all its affiliates is among the top demands from the Saudi-backed alliance in its three-week-old trade and diplomatic embargo of Qatar.
While the Saudi alliance accuses Qatar of using its powerful media empire to incite extremism, back Islamist groups and interfere in affairs of regional countries, Qatar is framing the Saudi demand as an attack on press freedom and an attempt to rein in voices of dissent.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
The Al Jazeera Arabic channel was established in 1996 by Qatar's then new emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. The pan-Arab news outfit was part of an attempt to boost Qatar’s international profile, along with other soft power tools of culture and sport. Al Jazeera entered a media landscape in the Middle East that had been largely controlled by Saudi money. A decade later, Al Jazeera English was launched.
The Muslim Brotherhood problem
Qatar’s backing of political Islamists is key to understanding the current diplomatic crisis and role of Al Jazeera. The default position of Arab regimes has always been political survival. Arab monarchies, especially after the protests in Bahrain in 2011, view political Islamists as existential threats.
Saudi Arabia is often described as a demographic time bomb. Some two-thirds of its population of 31 million people are under 30. Unemployment is high and, in recent years, the price of oil - the main driver of its economy - has fallen dramatically. Social pressures caused by wealth inequality and strict Wahhabi rule are fault lines that could lead to demands for political change.
In contrast, affluent Qatar has just 300,000 citizens, secure employment and an average income twice as high as Saudi Arabia's. The stable domestic situation means Islamist groups pose little threat to Qatar's rulers. For years before the Arab uprisings in 2011, political Islamist leaders had sought – and were given – refuge in Qatar. The controversial exiled Muslim Brotherhood cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was even given a high-profile platform, broadcasting his messages on Al Jazeera.
The Arab Spring
The Arab uprisings known as the Arab Spring and their repercussions led to a comprehensive reshuffling of alliances in the Gulf region.
At first there was more to unite than divide the Gulf Cooperation Council in its response. Qatar supported the GCC action in Bahrain. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE successfully pushed for international intervention in Libya.
But this cooperation subsided as perceived threats to the nations' domestic stability eased and regional rivalries intensified.
Pre-2011, most Arab autocrats were aligned with Saudi Arabia. With the Arab uprisings, Qatar saw a chance to gain influence and, backed by the soaring ratings of both Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, it seized the opportunity to broadcast its vision for a new order in the Middle East.
As members of the once-stable GCC began vying for power, they sought allies and began backing opposing political proxies. Qatar funnelled money to groups and leaders with staunchly political Islamist views on governance. Armed with financial and political muscle, Qatar also embarked on a regional media blitz aimed at gaining regional and international backing.
Those watching without a nuanced understanding of Middle East power dynamics may have missed the messaging, but those working at Al Jazeera were acutely aware of editorial direction coming from above. Those whispers became roars during and after the Arab uprisings in 2011.
Journalists were, for example, instructed to stop referring to Jabat al Nusra as an al Qaeda affiliate. A high-profile presenter was pulled off air for asking questions of a Muslim Brotherhood official that were considered disrespectful. The Doha-based Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal appeared in the conference room to 'brief' Al Jazeera journalists.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Qatar increasingly found themselves on opposing sides in political and military conflict. In Tunisia, Qatar backed the Islamist Ennahda party, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported the more secular Nidaa Tounes group. In Syria, Qatar backed Sunni Islamist figures such as Mustafa Sabbagh and Moaz al-Khatib. Qatar presented the future of governance in the Arab world as if secular democrats simply did not exist.
In Libya, Qatar and the Saudi-UAE alliance backed rival groups fighting a civil war, with Qatar in the corner of the Islamist Abdelhakim Belhadj. National Transitional Council Chairman Mahmoud Jibril spent most of the uprising in a five star hotel in Doha and was often an on-set guest on Al Jazeera. Financial support and favourable media coverage from Al Jazeera helped sweep the Ennahda party into power in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood into power in Egypt.
By 2013, Qatar’s new allies in the region were losing power. Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian protestors who believed their uprisings had been hijacked vented public anger against their governments – and against Qatar. In Qatar, the Emir who had been the architect of these foreign policy misadventures abdicated and his son Tamim bin Hamad al Thani took over.
The Saudis started to reassert control over the region, backing a military coup in Egypt that unseated the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi.
As the region descended into a series of entrenched conflicts, Qatar’s Al Jazeera network became increasingly one-sided, giving air time to Sunni Islamist allies that aligned with Qatar’s political objectives. Many experienced journalists left and viewers began to switch off. Budgets were slashed and coverage plans curtailed. Rumours swirled that the new Emir was beginning to see Al Jazeera as a problem and that the network’s days may be numbered.
Fast forward to 2017 and the latest - and most serious - diplomatic crisis. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan have already blocked Al Jazeera’s signal and closed the channel’s local offices. Saudi-owned networks such as Al Arabiya will likely gain prominence, and with it, the ability to broadcast their own version of the region to the world.
The deadline for Qatar to comply with the 13-item list of demands is Monday, 3 July. As celebrations marking Eid al–Fitr come to an end, the region will now re-focus on the most serious diplomatic spat to befall the GCC.
Qatar has rejected the list of demands outright. The region now waits for the next move by the Saudi-backed alliance in an ongoing war of words that’s unlikely to end any time soon.