The birth of Al Jazeera sparked a massive disruption to the status quo in the Gulf and Arab world. The evolution of the network, and the ensuing media wars, gives valuable historical insight into the friction between Qatar and its Gulf rivals.
Diplomatic squabbles and spats in the Gulf Cooperation Council are hardly a novelty. In fact, since the 19th century, Qatar has been threatened by the various clans governing neighbouring Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. After gaining its independence, occasional skirmishes took place like the ones between Qatar and Bahrain's coast guards in 1986, and between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 1992. Relations between the latter two also worsened in February 1996, when an attempted coup (which was supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain) was foiled in Qatar.
Qatar's then Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had just come into power and was embarking on a modernisation campaign. Ruling a wealthy yet vulnerable nation compelled the Qatari leader to think about efficient insurance strategies, including the creation of a comparative advantage through soft power and media development. Sheikh Hamad got wind of a failed Saudi-BBC venture that aimed to establish a 24/7 news channel in the early months of 1996, seized the opportunity, and Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA) was born in November 1996.
Fast forward 20 years later, and the same players are back to square one. Although this time, the unprecedented level of antagonism, acerbic rhetoric, and the scope of hostile actions directed at Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has caught observers by surprise. The precise reasons behind this sudden move are not entirely clear. But it appears that the Saudis and Emiratis think that unprecedented, prolonged pressure will cause the Qataris to surrender to their demands.
At the heart of these ultimatums is their desire for Qatar to become a vassal state and give up its regional role, most notably by relinquishing its mediator role, closing AJA, and de-funding several other print and web media outlets, along with the expulsion of Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara.
There is no doubt that in its early days AJA was the only satellite television service in the Arab world handling sensitive political, social, and religious issues. AJA's investigative journalism also exposed the misdeeds of local regimes and served as a platform for opposition groups by airing controversial debates and exposing corruption and widespread human rights abuses. This obliged Arab rulers to become much more attentive to public opinion than in the past. In this process, the Qatar based channel broke the media monopoly enjoyed by Saudi-owned Arabic language media, and inflicted severe damage to Arab media that acted as mouthpieces for local regimes.
Over the last two decades, AJA achieved several scoops. Their daring reporting during the 2000 Intifada, the 2001 War on Afghanistan, and the 2003 War on Iraq constituted a decolonization of the airwaves, as the Qatar-based channel highlighted anti-war reactions, civilian carnage, and the desecration of Arab/Muslim sovereignty and heritage by invading forces. The clash of frames was not just about meanings and representations, it was a major political encounter between two projects: an ultra-expansionist agenda in the Middle East versus a perspective opposed to foreign hegemony over the region.
There were also times when AJA's journalistic standards dropped, such as when more prominence was given to Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated forces during the Arab Spring, or when the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar warmed up. AJA's editorial line tends to be conversely affected by the quality of these relations. In the periods 2007-2011 and 2015-2016,
when both governments developed an understanding, AJA's coverage was negatively affected by unstated, yet numerous, red lines in their Gulf affairs coverage.
But the question remains, why is Al Jazeera in the crosshairs now?
There are three key factors at play. First, Saudi and UAE leaders have spent dozens of billions of dollars to bankroll counter-revolutionary forces across the Arab world to restore the pre-2011 order. However, in spite of this huge financial effort, these forces are struggling to achieve dominance on the ground. Most importantly, their message has not won hearts and minds mainly because of AJA, which deconstructs the counter-revolutionary narrative at every turn.
Secondly, there is a succession war underway in Saudi Arabia where the Deputy Crown Prince appears to be jumping the queue and establishing himself as the upcoming king. This comes at a time when the UAE is bent on the pursuit of regional influence and aspiring to become the little Sparta of the region.
Last but not least, the Trump administration encouraged Arab allies to form a military alliance with Israel against common foes. Another Israeli invasion of Gaza also seems to be in the pipeline, with the expectation that there will be an enhanced role for the Egyptian regime against the Palestinians. Critical coverage of this alliance will be detrimental to its success, and the popularity of the participating regimes will undoubtedly suffer. One should not forget that it was the 2000 Al-Aqsa Intifada that really boosted AJA's international profile. At that time, as dozens of Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army and thousands were injured, western media resorted to self-censorship, while AJA aired graphic footage of death and demolition, enhancing its reputation as a credible and reliable source of information in the Middle East. This time around, the Israel-Arab coalition against terrorism (as President Trump calls it) wants no witnesses.
It's too early to predict how the current crisis will be resolved, but it is hard to believe that Qatar's Emir will accept to surrender his country's position, soft power, and ambition just to please little Sparta.