Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared

Fred Halliday
23 March 2007

Doha, capital of the small Gulf state of Qatar (adult citizen population around 80,000), was once the centre of the most retrograde of the region's British-ruled statelets. Things have changed a little since then. With around 15% of the world's gas, Qatar now has (at around $70,000) the highest per-capita income on earth; its capital is a fast-moving city of skyscrapers and seaside motorways; its emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani (who came to power in June 1995 by following family tradition and deposing his father) a shrewd and ambitious ruler.

Yet for all the modernity, drivers here take their direction by reference to roundabouts, most named after local landmarks or symbols - "clocktower roundabout'", "oryx roundabout", and..."television roundabout". Welcome to the studios of al-Jazeera, perhaps the most famous broadcasting station in the world.

A few minutes from the centre of town, past a gatehouse with the proverbially sleepy guard, here it is: two extensive, single-storey buildings containing respectively the studios of al-Jazeera's Arabic service (founded in 1996) and the newer English-language channel. At first sight the headquarters seem nondescript (Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, a regular target of criticism on al-Jazeera's programmes, was heard to remark after a surprise midnight visit: "All this trouble from a matchbox!")

In the "English" building a relaxed and largely British staff of producers and interviewers offer a set of programmes and view of the world not that different in feel from BBC World and Sky News. Famous interviewers such as David Frost (in London) and ex-CNN host Riz Khan (in Washington) have been hired. The Arabic service was originally staffed with journalists who had worked on the BBC's first attempt at an Arabic TV station; many lost their jobs in 1996 when the station's Saudi sponsors, Orbit TV, took against their coverage of Saudi Arabia. Qatar's new emir responded to the censorship with an inspired move: he hired the Arab journalists en masse. Al-Jazeera was born.

A shift of culture

After an interview on the Arabic service with the (Lebanese and Tunisian), hosts of a books programme about the "dialogue of civilisations", I talked with one of al-Jazeera's senior editors, Aref Hijjawi (an ex-BBC man, from Nablus) about the consequences for America of its impending defeat in Iraq. I suggest that, despite the regional consequences, United States power at the global level - economic, technological and military - may not be any more affected than it was by the defeat in Vietnam. Hinjawi disagrees strongly, citing the Arabic saying: "When the string snaps, the worry beads fly in all directions".

Meanwhile, a translator regales me with stories of mistakes in Arabic rendering of English film scripts. Even now, we still translate "cool" as barid (cold) instead of his suggestion of hilwa (sweet), he laments.

The English-language service took several years longer to set up than anticipated, thanks to personnel disputes and what were politely termed "teething problems". The hope that it would be entirely separate from the Arabic station was unfulfilled: Wadah Khanfar is managing director of both channels. But the difference in approach from that of the main western channels is evident. On a routine news morning, while CNN led with the story of US troops fanning out across Baghdad to establish zones of security, al-Jazeera in English carried an account of the loss of US troops in a battle and the downing of an American helicopter by the Iraqi opposition (the latter event repeatedly illustrated by film of a helicopter falling out of the sky).

The flagship discussion programmes of the 1990s remain: The Opposite Direction (in Doha, hosted by Faisal Qasim) and The Other View (in London, hosted by Sami Haddad - a sparky Palestinian more at home in the Via Veneto than in Arabia). They have acquired a reputation for outspoken discussion, but a word of caution is necessary: they are not so much Arab, as very American chat shows whose purpose is provocation and whose "moderator" acts as the chief agent of incitement.

I have occasionally appeared on Sami's discussion programme, which rather too often degenerates into a bun-fight of competing accusations. On one occasion he accused me of being a KGB agent who had helped run the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; on another, I spoke alongside Abu Qatada, a Jordanian clergyman who was reputedly al-Qaida's main ally in Europe (now detained in London), who justified the destruction of the Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan on the grounds that there was "a world Buddhist conspiracy against Islam" aided by arms-carrying Japanese tourists to the (Shi'a-populated) region. At one moment Abu Qatada rounded on me and, in front of millions of viewers, accused me of being a kafir "infidel".

I recall too a shouting match, egged on by Sami, with the Arab newspaper editor, Abdel Bari Atwan as to which nation was capable of the greatest evasion and verbal hypocrisy: the British or the Arabs. It was a sign of our friendship, and of Abdel Bari's graciousness, that after the programme had been broadcast he immediately asked me to write for his paper, al-Quds al-Arabi. I doubt if such an offer would have come after arguing with an American editor on Fox News.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East ( Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

"America and Arabia after Saddam"
(May 2004)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm"
(July 2005)

"Political killing in the cold war"
(August 2005)

"A transnational umma: myth or reality?"
(October 2005)

"Iran vs the United States – again" (February 2006)

"A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah"
(July 2006)

"A 2007 warning: the twelve worst ideas in the world"
(8 January 2007)

"Sunni, Shi'a and the 'Trotskyists of Islam'"
(9 February 2007)

The media and the state

These lively if not always responsible programmes continue, but many of the older, secular journalists and board members have been shoved sideways. Indeed, the Arabic service has also changed from its former iteration, in part to reflect a shift of mood in the Arab world towards a more Islamist and less traditionally Arab nationalist approach. A gradual increase in the influence of Islamist producers and journalists from Egypt and north Africa is notable in the past two-three years; there is regular observance of prayer-time, and more bearded journalists. Much of this is attributed to the influence of Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian Islamist. As a correspondent he had angered the Saddam Hussein government in 2003, which threatened to hang him for his critical reports from the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. Today, he is aligning al-Jazeera more with the new, militant nationalist and Islamist, mood of the region.

No television station in modern times has created as much controversy as al-Jazeera. It made world news with its coverage of United States and British operations in Iraq in 1998; of the second Palestinian intifada from September 2000; of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001; then with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Above all, and beyond its insistent and critical denunciation of US and Israeli policy in the region, it has stimulated attention by broadcasting the videos-communiqués of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the al-Qaida leadership. But perhaps its greatest crime is the simple fact that - for the first time in the history of the electronic media - a station outside the control of western governments has reported in a live, independent voice from zones of combat.

This has made al-Jazeera the object of widespread denunciation and harassment. In both Kabul and Baghdad its studios were attacked by American aircraft; in the latter case one of its correspondents, Tareq Ayyoub, was killed (a memorial to him stands in the Doha studios). Al-Jazeera was subject during the Afghan and Iraq conflicts to crude diplomatic pressure from the US and others, to isolation of its journalists and TV crews in the field, and to vilification in much of the American media. Saudi pressure on advertisers to boycott the station too has had an effect on the level of advertising on al-Jazeera.

Yet al-Jazeera has become the most popular TV station in the Arab world: satellite discs in north Africa that a decade ago were turned to Europe now point towards the Gulf. Anyone who has seen the wooden, censored and completely dull fodder that is produced by conventional Arab TV stations will understand why this lively and informative channel has performed as well as it has. Just as the Kuwait war of 1991 "made" CNN (which was alone in broadcasting live from Baghdad - and denounced by US rightwingers as "Chicken News Network" for its sins), so al-Jazeera has made its name in moments of crisis and media opportunity in Afghanistan and Iraq especially; deservedly so, as the professionalism and courage of its correspondents and crews has shown.

Al-Jazeera has also been the dubious beneficiary of an often indulgent mythology, especially from western commentators who know no Arabic and ignore the station's political and regional context. It may be lively and for the Arab world something new, but al-Jazeera is not by any stretch of the imagination an independent broadcaster, or an index of some new "civil society" in the Arab world. Like every other satellite TV station in the Gulf (and very many elsewhere) it remains, in the last instance, the property of one very rich man. It is the arm of a state, and operates also as a function of Qatar's foreign and domestic policy.

Al-Jazeera's main function is very simple: to annoy Saudi Arabia, something it does very effectively. In February 2007 it obtained some video of a brawl in a Saudi university between students and security guards, which it broadcast over and over again. Its political connections means that it is also heavily subsidised: its budget is not public, and all its claims of generating advertising revenue have been empty.

The Qatar factor

This link to the Qatari state also explains what al-Jazeera can and cannot talk about. The Qatari state is engaged in a complex balancing act: providing base facilities to the US air force, army and intelligence services on its territory; maintaining diplomatic links with Israel; seeking to assuage a nationalist and quite religiously conservative population. (A Doha joke is that when the US air force does decide to bomb the al-Jazeera studios there, it needs only to take off from one side of town and fly for a minute before descending on its target). After the Iraq invasion, the emir was the first Arab head of state to visit Washington, to be thanked by George W Bush for "his silent support" and for fulfilling his (unspecified) promises.

Qatar remains vulnerable. Kuwaitis, also criticised on al-Jazeera's programmes, like to say that when the Saudis invade Qatar (as Saddam did Kuwait) no one will now come to their aid. The emirate's solution is to offset realist cooperation with Washington by broadcasting that meets domestic mood: acerbic towards the US and Israel, openly hostile to most other middle-eastern regimes, leavened with a large dose of religious propaganda and conservatism, embodied in the figure of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a conservative and often demagogic Egyptian preacher and Muslim Brother, who was given refuge in Doha in the 1960s. More recently, in what some in Qatar see as a risky move, both government and TV station have moved closer to Iran.

This context helps explain al-Jazeera's silences. Like all the rest of the media in the Gulf, including the universally craven English-language press, al-Jazeera is happy to report at length about developments far away, but not so keen to report on those nearer home, unless it suits state purposes. So there is little about the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, or the facts of state finances, or the reasons for the dismissal of ministers (including the sacking of the crown prince, Shaikh Jasim, and his replacement by a younger brother). No one either probes corruption, inter-elite factionalism, or the feasibility of the many grand projects to which the government is committed.

The Qataris make much of their independent foreign policy and related initiatives, and in some cases rightly so: they have kept a door open to Israel, and to their great credit interview Israelis on al-Jazeera, while helping to keep the Palestinians afloat. There are darker realities too: from the assassination in February 2004 of the former Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev by Russian secret-service agents to policies endorsed by Qatar within United Nations bodies and conferences on family and gender issues that align with the most conservative global forces (such as the US, the Vatican and Iran).

An information war?

Al-Jazeera has occasioned a wider myth, to which both it and its opponents seem to subscribe: that alongside the real wars in the region there is another (in some ways equally important) "media" or "information" war. This leads western governments, pressed after Iraq or over their support for Israel, to upgrade their own media and journalistic output in the service of "public diplomacy".

True, the media matter in international affairs. Satellite TV has had an enormous impact on the Arab world, even if it is hard to quantify. But the general claim is flawed, and for a very simple reason: the problem with US policy is not that it has not been properly packaged or argued for in TV studies, but that it is in itself mistaken, and deeply offensive to most people in the middle east. That is something that no amount of spinning, leaking, primetime interviews or public relations can solve.

Al-Jazeera, like any TV station, faces the challenge of staying ahead. Its fundamental broadcasting challenge is that of keeping its edge in a relentless (and increasingly internet-dominated) media environment. As long as other stations in the region remain under tight censorship and transmit boring programmes, it should not find this too difficult. Al-Jazeera Arabic also captures today's mood of anger in the Arab world following the Iraq debacle.

The English-language station has a more difficult task: in seeking to put an alternative, combined "north-south" view of international affairs, it risks falling into blandness: the kind of coverage of state conferences and development projects that was tried in the 1970s under the rubric of a "new international information order". Its current editorial inflexions suggest that its managers are seeking to give it a grittier, non-mid Atlantic, character. In this, they will be ably abetted by the blunders of the west and its allies in the middle east itself. The matchbox may roar for some time to come.

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