Since its inception over two decades ago, the Al Jazeera news network has been at the centre of tiny Qatar’s efforts to challenge Saudi Arabia hegemony over the Arab-speaking world.
As a teenager growing up in Morocco, Tarek Cherkaoui watched the US warplanes bomb Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991 through the lens of the US news channel CNN, the only major broadcaster covering the conflict.
Years later in 2003, he saw another war in Iraq but this time Arab media outlets relayed the news. Cherkaoui has been interested in media ever since.
Cherkaoui, who has a PhD in Media and Communications from Auckland University, is author of the book The News Media At War: The Clash of Western and Arab Networks in the Middle East. He currently works at Georgetown University in Qatar.
Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut off diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in a growing rift over foreign policy issues. Once again, Al Jazeera has invited the wrath of Arab monarchs and dictators.
Is Al Jazeera one of the reasons for Qatar's isolation?
TAREK CHERKAOUI: The concept of Al Jazeera was not the fruit of thinking in Qatar. As a matter of fact, it was the result of a media organisation called Orbit that Saudi Arabia wanted to launch along with the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in 1993.
But the idea was cancelled after the BBC aired some controversial news about the Saudi royal family.
The BBC had already trained many journalists. They were just ready to embark on something when the project was cancelled.
Qatar’s leadership saw an opportunity and asked those same journalists to come and work for its own news organisation called Al Jazeera. So you can see that from day one there was a rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the project itself.
Was Al Jazeera part of Qatar’s desire to exert its own influence in the Arab world?
TC: Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Qatar was basically a vassal state of Saudi Arabia. Doha's foreign policy was what Riyadh decided. That changed when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani came to power [in a bloodless coup in 1995]. Qatar decided to look beyond Saudi Arabia to whatever suited its national interest.
So Al Jazeera was one of the many projects started at the time. There were also educational and cultural components to that transformation. It was a multilayer project which aspired to give Qatar a high standing among nations.
This independence in the foreign policy was not appreciated by Saudi Arabia. I think Qatar saw that Saudi Arabia wasn't progressing. Riyadh was stagnant, rigid, with a poor educational system and there was no attempt at modernisation in the technological area.
Was there more behind Al Jazeera's establishment?
TC: As an independent state, Qatar was under tremendous pressure by its neighbours. For instance, there was an attempted coup in late 1995 and early 1996 that was supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE [The coup was aimed at replacing Hamad with his more subservient father].
That covert action provoked a reaction from the Qatari state to secure its own security.
How did Al Jazeera become most popular media outlet in the Arab world?
TC: Simply because it followed proper journalistic standards. It was a unique Arab news outlet, which provided analysis based on fact, and corroborated evidence and actually reported on things happening on the ground.
It was not like other news organisations that merely replicated what the rulers wanted to say. For the first time Arabs had access to people who could say things that were different from the official line.
Al Jazeera was able to have discussions and arguments on various subjects [such as corruption and human rights abuse].
The people given airtime represented Islamists, those on the left, and dissident voices. So all these things took place for the first time in the Arab world, which led to Al Jazeera's success.
Did Al Jazeera deliberately promote public protests during the Arab Uprisings?
TC: There was nothing deliberate. Al Jazeera aired what was happening on the ground [in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya]. [These were] not its own invention.
Al Jazeera reporters went to the places where protests were taking place and simply covered them.
[The channel] was only performing its journalistic duty. I am not saying they were perfect. At times it might have given more air time to one party compared to the other. But in general, its coverage was much better than the others.
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, [the Saudi prince and businessman], summarised that difference very well: "Al Jazeera is the channel of the masses and Al Arabiya is the channel of the rulers."
But was Al Jazeera always impartial?
TC: Yes, Al Jazeera’s coverage was partial [in some cases]. Let me start by first saying that Al Jazeera was one of the major news players in the Arab Spring. They gave voice to the voiceless, which means all those people who faced tremendous danger to remove dictatorships in places like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
Al Jazeera was key to bringing those events into the life to the viewers everywhere in the Arab world and beyond. There could be arguments about their coverage of events in Bahrain or Oman. But it's not like there was no coverage, the prominence of coverage varied.
And it’s also not like Al Jazeera spread disinformation, or twisted facts. Al Jazeera did cover what was happening but it didn’t give [the 2011 uprising in Bahrain] the same prominence.
What we see now happening is regional excess that represents a counter-revolution. So people who are back in power in Egypt and Libya are supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Hence this hatred for Al Jazeera, because they see it as having tremendous potential to empower opposition movements.
Was Al Jazeera under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood?
TC: Al Jazeera opened its door for journalists from all over the Arab world. There were people joining in from different religions and political backgrounds.
Some were affiliated with the left, while others were known for their connections with the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamic organisations.
At some stage, I can say there was some influence [of the Muslim Brotherhood] in the decision-making, but I don’t think that influence has persisted over time.
Are Saudis and Emiratis wary of public dissent but Qatar is not?
TC: When it comes to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the issue is not just with protests or public dissent. They don’t want any oppositional discourse.
That’s why they were against Al Jazeera from the beginning, because the network was inviting guests who represented different opinions. The Saudis wanted their own view only. Their thinking is either "You are with us or against us."
I’m not saying freedom of the press in Qatar is perfect. But we can differ on the extent of it. The tolerance level in Saudi is zero.