Qatar is ruled by the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and his tribe, the Al Thani. In proportion to the country’s small size, the Al Thani family is the largest of all the ruling families in the Middle East. It also has a reputation for being the most argumentative. Transition from one ruler to another has rarely been smooth and the family’s propensity for spilling one another’s blood won them the title “the thugs of the Gulf” from one pre-independence British administrator.
The previous Emir was Sheikh Hamad’s father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani. He seized power in a coup immediately after Qatar’s independence in 1971 and for the next twenty-three years presided over important developments in Qatar’s infrastructure, domestic and foreign policies, effectively creating the modern state. In later years the old Sheikh developed a fine taste for luxury, spending more and more time out of the country, often on the French Riviera.
Today’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is the eldest of Sheikh Khalifa’s five sons. His first exposure to democracy was on a trip to London when he was still a boy and legend has it that the concept seemed so ridiculous to him that he had to be led in hysterical laughter from the balcony of the House of Commons after witnessing his first parliamentary debate. He later went to Britain’s Sandhurst military academy, until he returned to Qatar in 1977, when he became Minister of Defence. He still has a house near Windsor, Berkshire.
In 1995 the elderly Sheikh Khalifa briefly returned to Qatar after one of his many trips abroad, demoted one son from his position as Prime Minister and promoted another in his place. Crown Prince Hamad was rattled by his father’s habit of arbitrary promotion and dismissal. Thinking that one day this might put his own claim to the throne in jeopardy, he proclaimed himself the new Emir on 27 June that year, while the old Emir was in Switzerland on holiday. It is said that Sheikh Khalifa learned of the coup while listening to the radio in his hotel room in Geneva. Others say his son told him on the phone and then promptly hung up. If it had happened today he probably would have heard about it on Al-Jazeera.
The coup ushered in a year of strife and bickering between father and son. Sheikh Khalifa, who had every intention of clinging on to power, embarked on a tour of the Gulf to stir up dissent against his own son, whom he publicly disowned. Rumours of plots against the young Emir’s life abounded, climaxing in a foiled counter-coup attempt on 14 February 1996. It was said that the Sheikh had taken many billions of dollars – possibly as much as twenty-five billion – out of the Qatari government coffers.
It was now Sheikh Hamad’s turn to act. With the help of the Washington law firm Patton Boggs, he froze the money that his father had ladled out of the national reserve, thus ending his dream of a return to power. Sheikh Hamad quickly consolidated his position as Emir politically by ceding some of his power to a broader authority and by constitutionally safeguarding the role of Prime Minister.
On acceding to power Sheikh Hamad was, at just forty-four, the youngest ruler in the Gulf. The other Arab countries, with the exception of Oman, were governed by rulers in their sixties, seventies or eighties, many of whom had held power for a quarter of a century or more. The young Emir and his new political team of young, Western-educated technocrats belonged to a different generation, more open to political and social ideas from the West.
It was not long before it became clear that Sheikh Hamad had plans quite unlike his father’s. He dispensed with the ritual and baroque finery of the court, and began instead to govern Qatar more like a managing director running a large corporation. Understanding the importance of privatization, he quickly turned many institutions in need of quick reform over to the private sector, among them Qatar’s antiquated postal service.
Like any sensible hands-on manager, he developed good personal relationships with his trusted top staff and always kept a handle on the cash. Unlike other Arab rulers, who remained aloof from their subjects, the new Emir made a habit of explaining his policies and ideas, often speaking directly to the press. He shied away from the kind of ceremony typical of most Arab leaders and even made a point of working in the afternoons.
Nowadays he sometimes drives around Doha and if he sees a problem he calls the appropriate minister to tell him what needs to be fixed. He is known for showing up in Doha restaurants with no entourage except for a few security men and sitting down to eat with amazed diners. Although for security reasons no one is allowed to leave before him, he does not have the restaurant cleared, as other Arab leaders do.
Although Qatar has phenomenal natural gas reserves – a trillion cubic feet of gas and potentially a trillion-dollar economy – the old Emir had believed conservatively that Qatar’s interests would better be served if the country never moved too far ahead of others in the region, culturally, economically or politically. The new Emir decided to abandon this policy. Rather than try to blend in with the other Gulf countries, he has done all he can to elevate Qatar’s position on the world stage, inviting Bill Clinton and Al Gore to Qatar, hosting the World Islamic and World Trade Organization conferences and soliciting major sporting events like World Championship motorcycle racing and the Asian Games of 2006. Qatar, he has stated, should be “known and noticed”.
Sheikh Hamad has plans to turn Qatar into an important regional hub, a kind of Arab version of Switzerland: rich, neutral and secure. The massive airport that is currently being built, capable of carrying forty-five million passengers a year, shows that he is thinking big and long-term.
Before any other Gulf country, the Emir introduced democratic elections for a number of establishments and authorities, delivered a new constitution, established an elected national body, the Municipal Council, and founded Al-Jazeera.
When I visited Doha, loyal Qataris assured me that the new Municipal Council, or Majlis Ash Shura, two-thirds of whose forty-five members are directly elected, the rest appointed by the Emir, had real political bite. When I asked my Qatari friends what kind of dramatic reforms it had helped implement recently I was told it had helped precipitate a major overhaul in the way the police calculate fines for traffic offences.
Although Qatar is often cited today as a paragon of virtue in the Middle East, it is important to keep this claim in perspective. Greater public participation in decision-making is a good start, but Qatar is still not a democracy. But then it is not a police state either: it is an autocratic state subject to the whim of one man, the Emir, who, although fortunately not a tyrant, is unelected, unaccountable and all-powerful. The Municipal Council may decide traffic laws but it does not discuss the military budget or the Emir’s personal expenditure.
Political parties in Qatar are still outlawed, as is anything that vaguely resembles one: for example, an environmental lobby group, a consumer association or an association of professionals. Opposition is not tolerated and there is still no real debate about how the country is run. In 1998 local Qatari newspapers published a letter from a Qatari religious scholar called Abdul Rahman al-Nuaimi which criticized the emancipation of women in Qatar, one of the government’s key policies. Nuaimi wrote that this trend was un-Islamic and that awarding women political rights risked turning them into men. He was arrested and jailed for nearly three years without trial.
With a word the Emir can change the course of the life of any individual or family in Qatar, even powerful members of his own tribe, and all Qataris depend on his benevolence. On 5 August 2003 the Emir announced that his successor would no longer be his elder brother, who had been in ill health, but would instead be his own fourth son. In a moment one man’s autocratic decision changed the future of Qatar for ever.
Nor is it only Qataris who watch what they say in Qatar. At an expat party during my first week in Doha, I was politely asked whether I had yet met anyone from the Qatari CID. The CID, so expat rumour had it, is the secret arm of the Qatari police and has the job of mingling with the expat community to gauge its disposition towards the state. Since there is no democratic forum for people to air their opinions, the government has to employ policemen to stay abreast of the mood on the street. It is the task of CID officers to spot seditious trends in behaviour before they start. If they stumble across anyone fishy among the expatriate community, they tip off the regular police, and the authorities, rather than hold a long and potentially embarrassing court case, simply expel suspect expats at once.
“This is why,” a veteran British expatriate policeman told me over a tray of sausages at an expat house party in Doha, “there has been no terrorism so far in Qatar. The Qataris run a very tight ship. They know who goes into the country and who comes out, and if you want a long-stay visa they run a thorough background check on you. Not to mention AIDS tests, even for children. Any doubt at all, you get deported.”
Another highly unusual aspect of Sheikh Hamad’s regime is that the second of his three wives, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Misned, has an important role in running the nation’s affairs. She is the chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and sits on several other committees. Qataris see her as a sovereign in her own right. The royal couple rule almost as a partnership: sometimes she speaks in public with complete authority while he sits in the audience and watches. A glamorous mother of seven in her forties, Sheikha Moza possesses the positivity and self-confidence that characterize the Arab women’s movement. One Qatari technocrat who worked for her told me he was impressed by her capacity for speed-reading lengthy technical documents and then asking intelligent, pertinent questions.
By the 1980s, when Qatar had become a seriously wealthy country, its Gulf neighbours, Dubai, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, had already had a chance to establish themselves in the region as regional banking and commerce capitals. Unlike the other Emirates, Qatar traditionally had never been a trade hub, so the American-educated first lady, thinking laterally, decided that rather than compete with them she would concentrate on developing Qatar as a regional leader in education. Education has since become an obsession for both the Emir and his wife.
Buying wholesale into the American university system, the educational foundation which she heads paid $750 million for a branch of Cornell University to open a campus in Doha. At present the Weill Cornell Medical College turns out just sixty graduates a year, but, when it comes to royal projects, money is never a deciding factor, and Sheikha Moza has identified a regional demand for quality educational facilities. Virginia University, Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M University and the prestigious American think tank the Rand Corporation have all recently opened branches in Qatar. According to one Qatari academic I spoke with, this has already had a positive effect far beyond anyone’s hopes. With so many world-class institutions located on one block in Qatar’s new science and technology park, the prospects for academic cross-fertilization during the lunch hour are enormous.
Academics have been given important roles in drafting Qatar’s new democracy. For example, the President of the University of Qatar chaired the committee that drew up the new constitution. He had the final word over all the others who contributed to it, the Foreign Minister among them, so an academic took precedence over a minister.
Although women in Qatar still face discrimination, Sheikha Moza, who is a Unesco special envoy for education, has helped effect a dramatic improvement in their status. Women in Qatar vote, drive and make up 40 per cent of the workforce. Unlike in any Western democratic country, Qatari women were enfranchised at the same time as men. In March 1999 six women ran in the municipal elections. Although none of them won a seat, this was the first time that women had been allowed to stand for election in any of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), and more women voted than men.
Public education for women has reached a standard so high that women now account for nearly two-thirds of the University of Qatar’s nine thousand students and win most of the academic prizes. The Dean of the University is a woman, many of the teachers are women and recently women’s athletics were introduced for the first time. Increasingly, Qatari women can be found working in both public departments and commercial businesses. Paradoxically, because of the country’s strict Wahhabi beliefs, photographs of Sheikha Moza were prohibited until very recently, and when she appeared with her husband for an interview on CBS News’s Sixty Minutes the Arab world was astonished.
Besides representing Arab women, Sheikha Moza has also worked hard on behalf of children, and she chairs Qatar’s Supreme Council for Family Affairs. Under her guidance the prodigious use of child labour in camel racing has come to an end. In Qatar camel racing is a traditional sport in which the jockeys are usually children. Being a jockey in a camel race is not like being a jockey in a horse race. Unlike horses, camels do not need a lot of goading: they run as hard as they can by themselves and just need someone to point them in a straight line. Since the jockey’s job is simply to hold the reins, the principal prerequisite for the job is being small and light, so children are ideal. But this is not humane, ruled Sheikha Moza. Now Qatari technologists have pioneered a robotic camel jockey, and children are no longer needed. The camel, I was told, runs just as well.
In the West, Qatar’s radical reforms have been hailed as a rare example of better Arab governance. Power had been passed down from one generation to the next peacefully, if not exactly democratically. But, in the Gulf, neighbouring cranky septuagenarian despots began to wonder if the same thing might happen to them. The little Emirate’s sweeping new policies were seen as a wild and dangerous precedent.
The Qataris and the Saudis in particular have long been uneasy neighbours. Although Qataris practise the same brand of conservative Wahhabi Islam as Saudis, they are more moderate in outlook and more tolerant of the expatriate majority among whom they live. By Western standards, Qataris still seem very conservative, especially when it comes to sex, but alcohol is available and women are treated much better than in Saudi Arabia. There the sexes are forbidden to mix, women must be covered from head to toe when in public and other faiths are banned.
For years Saudi Arabia has seen itself as regional supervisor in the Gulf, owed respect and deference by all the smaller Emirates. From the Saudis’ point of view, important regional decisions should not be embarked upon without consulting them first. On a personal level, the House of Saud thinks of itself as grander than the Al Thani, which the Al Thani strongly resent. In all, these two countries, like most Arab neighbours, have spent years nurturing a deep dislike of each other.
On several occasions in the early nineties the Saudis simply attacked the Qataris to remind them who was boss. In 2002 a new border agreement was signed to stop this, and since then Qatar’s reforms have continued apace. Relations between the new Emir and the Saudis got off to a poor start because the Saudis were accused of sponsoring a failed counter-coup to put the deposed Emir back on the throne. Since then the Saudis have occasionally made a show of welcoming him back to the region, to snub the current Emir, his son Sheikh Hamad.
There are many things that irritate the Saudis about the Qataris. With its new democracy and new constitution, Qatar has underlined Saudi Arabia’s backwardness; Qatar is the only country in the region with ties, albeit low-level ones, to Israel; at the end of the first Gulf war in 1991 Qatar offered Iraq the use of its capacious ports to handle commodities bought under the UN’s oil-for-food programme; Qatar is much richer per capita than Saudi Arabia, with a per capita GDP of $21,500, compared with the Saudis’ puny $11,800; and Qatar has gradually eclipsed Saudi Arabia as America’s first choice of military partner in the Gulf.
But why, I wondered, are Qataris so different from their neighbours? When I visited Al-Jazeera’s London bureau I met Muftah al-Suwaidan, its Qatari executive director, who had worked for Qatar Airways and Qatar National Bank in Paris before Al-Jazeera, and I put this question to him. His response was, “Until the end of the seventies Qatar was still a very conservative society. When the new Emir took over in 1995 and started to open society he brought new ideas and the people accepted it. Today in Qatar society is open. Qataris are not just open in the media, they are open in all aspects of Qatari life. But it is also to do with international changes: what is happening in the region. After Iraq invaded Kuwait and then there was the liberation of Kuwait, the Americans started demanding democracy and human rights in the region and this had an effect on Qatar before it did on our neighbours.”
Mostefa Souag, an Algerian and Al-Jazeera’s senior correspondent in London, added other reasons. “Qatar is a small country and change in a small country is easier than in a big one, as you can reach the whole population faster. Also, when a country is rich its fortune can reach everybody. People go abroad to study and then come back with new ideas.”
There are probably cultural reasons that they did not mention, like Qatar’s colonial history and its long history of trading with Iran and the other Gulf states. The Saudis, by contrast, issue from the landlocked desert. But Qataris agree that it is their unusual royal couple who are primarily responsible for the country’s progressive changes, including the establishment of Al-Jazeera.
“Qatar has a leadership that is willing not just to go hand in hand with the people, but prepared to go ahead and pull them,” explained Souag. “If you have a leadership that is well-educated, open-minded and know what the country needs, then they can go even further than the country and then bring them after. When the Emir took over, he came with ideas. He saw that one of the best ways to move forward was to modernize the media.”
Pulling the country forward whether it wanted to go or not didn’t sound like very healthy governance to me. No, both Al-Jazeera men were adamant, this was genuinely a case of the leader knows best. “Forty years ago, if you had said to Qataris, ‘do you want to send your kids abroad to study?” most of them would have said no,” reasoned Souag. “You have to make people open up.”
“Look, our leadership leads the people,” offered Al-Suwaidan. “It is no different than when, during the [second] Iraqi war, a million people demonstrated in London against the war. Blair was asked, since a million people oppose it, why are you still going to war? And he said the leadership has to lead. Sometimes he does not have to listen to the public. Sometimes the leader can see further than the public.” It is a persuasive analogy.
Whether all Qataris agree is hard to gauge. In the run-up to the first Gulf war, while Americans in neighbouring Gulf countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, were being murdered, the Qataris’ objections to the Emir turning their tiny country into a giant terrestrial aircraft carrier remained muted. If Qataris take issue with their Emir’s decisions, they complain behind closed doors. There is occasional grumbling about some reforms, but as long as there is continued prosperity most people are too busy getting rich to complain much. The creation of Al-Jazeera was an act of liberalism, not one of democracy, and the channel could be unmade as quickly as it was made if one day the Emir changes his mind.
Not that Qataris are all holding on for democracy: many people told me they were very happy with the current system and liked what the Emir had done. ‘democracy would not work well in Qatar,” one Qatari told me. “We have a small, family-based country and if someone runs for a political position then, of course, their whole family backs them. This means larger families can use the democratic system legitimately to secure power for themselves, which is what has happened in Kuwait, where families act like lobby groups. We have a strong leader, with a moral conscience, good values and a pile of money. Qatar is a special case. Democracy is not the best system for us.”
Time will tell if Qatar is on the right course or not. The country has already changed dramatically under the Emir’s new reforms. Qataris are now better educated and more politically enlightened than ever before. The ratio of work to free time has changed considerably and now that women have joined the workforce there is a burgeoning middle class in which both husband and wife work. In order to let the massive national wealth trickle down, ordinary Qataris are being allowed to invest in the economy, in security markets and companies mostly or partly owned by the government. More social responsibility is coming. Not long ago there were no taxes and all public services were free. Now businesses pay limited taxes, as well as for water and electricity and soon private users will do so too. The new media, especially Al-Jazeera, have dramatically changed the way Qataris see the rest of the world. People often call into Al-Jazeera and complain about their Emir and life in Qatar, but it is clear that the channel has made them feel Qatar is a player on the world stage.
The Emir is laying foundations, like free speech and education, which will not bear fruit overnight. Probably the full impact of the reforms will not be felt until a hundred years from now.
As well as pursuing reform at home, Qatar has an ambitious foreign policy that can be summed up as trying to get along with everyone. It has had controversial ties with America, Israel, Iraq and Iran all at the same time, it has welcomed exiled Hamas leaders, given asylum to Saddam Hussein’s wife, received visits from high-level Al-Qaeda members (before 9/11) and sheltered a Chechen Islamic leader wanted by the Russians. It practises a delicate balancing act that seems to have worked – so far.
In the context of Qatar’s maverick tradition, Al-Jazeera perhaps does not seem such an extraordinary phenomenon after all. Nor is this the first time the Arab world has been overrun with exciting new media. Local newspapers first came to the Middle East in the nineteenth century and for years Egypt’s Al-Ahram was generally considered to be the finest Arab newspaper in print. The Second World War saw the advent of radio in the Middle East in the form of Allied and Axis propaganda radio, after which came the BBC Arabic service, the Voice of America, Radio Moscow and, by far the most popular of all, the anti-imperialist Nasserite Voice of the Arabs.
The sixties brought transistor radios and then television. These were particularly important for the Arab world, since illiteracy rates are still well over 50 per cent in many countries, especially among women. The Iranian revolutionaries recognized this in the seventies, when they used audio-cassettes very effectively to spread their message; Islamic militants today disseminate sermons via CD, DVD or audio files on the Internet.
The seventies and eighties saw the rise of regional newspapers. After the civil war in Lebanon a growing number of Arab newspapers moved their headquarters to Europe. These decades also saw the rise of the Saudi media empires, as wealthy princes backed papers aspiring to promote a perspective on the Middle East sympathetic to the Saudi regime.
The problem with this abundance of media was that it was all controlled either by a Minister of Information or by the financial backers. Its main interest was in serving the government, which in practice meant much buffing of the ruler’s ego. Newspapers and television broadcasts would typically dwell chiefly on what the Sheikh, Emir or President was supposed to be doing that day. Tedious national occasions would be celebrated at length and much airtime was given over to the shaking of hands, kissing of babies and cutting of ribbons. Until the 1990s the Arab media still followed, in spirit at least, a decree laid down in 1865 by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire that required journalists to ‘report on the precious health of the Sultan”.
Sometimes the press was used by the government for other purposes. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where all the press is state-controlled, it is well-established government practice to gauge public opinion on new issues by starting a debate in the newspapers. In the mid-seventies the Saudi newspapers debated whether or not cinemas should be legal for three months, before the King decided that those opposing cinemas were in the majority and banned them.
Unsurprisingly, Arabs learned to despise and distrust everything they heard, read or saw in the media. All the media came to be regarded, quite rightly, as appendages of the government, which only ever echoed, never investigated or criticized, what their leaders said. By way of a substitute Arabs shared news informally in the souk or at the mosque. The spoken word was always privileged over the written word and the person who told you something was often as important as the thing he told you. Although prioritizing the spoken word is anathema to Westerners, who feel happier trusting written documents, in the Middle East this tradition has its roots in Islam itself, where the sayings of the prophet Muhammad are transmitted orally. When Muslims recall these sayings, they do not reflect just on what was said, but on the chain of authority by which it has been remembered. This chain of trustworthy people, called the Isnad, is like a guarantee of authenticity stretching back through history.
The most determined in the Arab world looked abroad for news, and for years three major Arabic-language radio stations played a vital role in keeping Arabs in touch with world events: Radio Monte Carlo, which was French, the Voice of America and the BBC. Although these stations were extremely popular and offered a higher standard of news than anything produced domestically, they were Western and so still subject to some suspicion.
Whenever Arabs began to turn back to their state media, for example in times of war, their trust would be disastrously betrayed. The most famous instance of this was during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when Arabs everywhere were glued to the Sawt al-Arab radio station founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of the United Arab Republic (Egypt). The beloved announcer Ahmad Said, a household name in the Middle East, declared that the Arab armies had crushed the Israeli army and that Israeli planes were “falling from the skies like flies’. The rest of the Arab media went on to repeat this message until a week later, when Arabs found out from foreign sources that they had, in fact, been utterly defeated. Arab trust in the media was shattered. Since then the media has done little to win it back: in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Saudi media delayed telling the people for two days.
In May 2004 when Egypt was bidding to hold the 2010 soccer World Cup, the Egyptian Minister of Youth and Culture appeared on television. What he said gave the impression that the nation had indeed won enough votes from the FIFA Executive Board to become the host nation. This was it, thought millions of Egyptians; finally we have won something! Only later when the votes were officially counted did it emerge that South Africa had in fact been chosen, with fourteen votes; Morocco came second with ten; and Egypt was in a humiliating last place, with no votes at all. For many soccer-mad Egyptians, this was as much a hammer blow as being lied to about the progress of a war.
Satellite technology first came to the Arab world in the eighties – the Arabsat satellite was launched in 1985 – but for the first few years its potential was underused. The most important impact it had on the Arab media was in transmitting Arab newspapers edited in London, like Al-Sharq al-Awsat and later Al-Hayat, to Arab capitals for printing. It was not until after the first Gulf war, when regional governments noted the pivotal role played by CNN, that the strategic possibilities of satellite television were reconsidered. Arab satellite channels started to change and began to offer more round-the-clock news and current affairs programming.
The output was still blatantly self-serving, usually with a heavy political bias. It steered clear of controversy and avoided anything that mixed religion and politics. The Egyptian Space Channel (ESC), for example, regarded its role as being that of ambassador for Egypt and strived to present a rosy picture of happy Egyptians in breathtaking locations. Lebanese Future TV, headed by Lebanon’s billionaire Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, aimed to portray a vibrant picture of Lebanon well recovered from the war, in the hope that he might attract investors. Saudi Arabia’s MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Centre) broadcast news and current affairs programming from London and became a popular family channel, but it strictly avoided anything that might infringe on the interests of the Saudi government. London-based ANN (Arab News Network), owned by the Syrian President’s nephew, also had a strong political agenda. The fact that some of these new satellite channels were based in Europe, out of reach of their own countries’ censorship laws, did not mean they offered a higher quality of commentary.
Even today, Egypt’s Minister of Information telephones the Egyptian state news bureau every evening with a list of ministers and specific instructions as to the order in which each should appear. On his instructions, Egyptian news dedicates at least one bulletin every evening to the activities of the President’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, usually for several minutes. Extensive airtime is also given regularly to the activities of the President’s favoured son, Gamal. Consequently the Egyptian national news still often looks more like the Mubarak family show.
Exactly what the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had in mind when he decided so firmly to establish a satellite news channel – whether it was for financial gain, or from a desire to make political capital over his long-term rivals the Saudis, or out of a genuine yearning for democratic reform – is a matter of opinion. He first put forward the idea as early as August 1994, when his father was still on the throne. The initial plan had been to upgrade Qatari state television and begin transmitting it via satellite. Indeed in retrospect there are some signs that Qatari state television was a kind of Al-Jazeera prototype. In January 1996 a diplomatic row with Bahrain was ignited when two exiled Bahraini opposition leaders were interviewed on Qatari state TV. Although it was a regular terrestrial rather than a satellite broadcast, the signal carried easily across the water to nearby Bahrain and it miffed the King. The Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs accused Qatar of cooperating with Bahrain’s enemies and deliberately attacking a sisterly state.
Despite, or perhaps because of this early row, the Emir issued a decree establishing a new channel called Al-Jazeera a month later. It was less than a year since he had acceded to power and it was evident that he had been planning it for some time. Preparations for the new channel were quickly underway. A three-man committee, consisting of a Qatari journalist, one of the Emir’s close financial advisers and the under-secretary of the Ministry of Information, was appointed to recruit staff. The Qatari Council of Ministers, or Supreme Council, appointed a seven-man board of directors for Al-Jazeera, each of whom would sit for three years. Sheikh Hamad bin Thamir Al Thani, then a deputy Minister of Information, was appointed chairman. The Emir agreed with the editorial board that Al-Jazeera would be independent of his control and that if he were ever to break this pact the result would be their mass resignation.
Initially the plan had been for a channel that was part news and part entertainment, but after the Emir watched a six-hour pilot prepared by the committee in London, he settled on an all-news format. Nine months later, on 1 November 1996, Al-Jazeera began broadcasting.
To help it start up, the Emir gave Al-Jazeera five hundred million Qatari riyals ($137 million) as what was supposed to be a one-off payment. This funding was to cover five years, by which time, it was projected, Al-Jazeera would have achieved financial independence as a commercial operation. As with any other news channel, the plan was to generate sufficient income through selling advertising, programmes and exclusive footage, as well as hiring out equipment to other television stations.
Al-Jazeera failed to raise enough revenue by these means, however, and is still receiving financial aid from the government. It has never had a single owner, some of the company’s shares being owned by the Qatari government, some by private citizens. Executives have expressed the hope that one day the network might be incorporated as a private company and sell its stock to the general public.
Since Al-Jazeera’s inception the Emir has continued to shape domestic policy to sustain the channel. Without his continued political and financial benevolence, it would have ceased transmitting long ago. The new Qatari constitution, overseen by the Emir, enshrined the freedom of the press and was a constitution which in later years he was to quote to the Americans when they pressured him to interfere with Al-Jazeera’s output.
In March 1998 the Emir abolished the Ministry of Information, ending press, radio and television censorship. Overnight the government-owned Qatar Radio and Television Corporation, the Qatari Press Agency and the Department of Printing and Publications became independent public institutions. All the media in Qatar, including Al-Jazeera, found their horizons dramatically broadened in terms of whom they could employ and what they could broadcast or publish. Ironically, in Qatar at that time, as in many other Arab countries, satellite dishes were illegal. Al-Jazeera was still available free to Qataris via a terrestrial signal, but until a few years later satellite dishes were seen only on government buildings. Today large satellite dishes are still outlawed.
Even loyal Qataris confess they were astounded when they heard of the sweeping reforms. “When we heard the Emir planned to abolish the Ministry of Information, we said to each other, this has got to be a joke,” recalled Mostefa Souag. “This could not happen in the Arab world. When we first heard about Al-Jazeera, we thought this is another joke. Then we saw it and we finally realized that this administration, this elite which came with the new Emir, had genuinely decided to do something different. These are people who had been educated in the West, know what is going on in the world and wanted to apply their ideas in real life rather than be tied down by tradition.”
Seeking Arabic-speaking staff with television news experience, Al-Jazeera profited hugely at the very start from an aborted joint Saudi–BBC attempt to establish a similar kind of service. In the early nineties a prince, a cousin of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, had set up a satellite television company called Orbit. To have access to European technicians and talent and avoid the kind of government interference that might arise if it were based in an Arab country, the prince decided to base Orbit’s operations in Rome. In addition to offering nineteen television channels to paying subscribers, the company approached the BBC to supply an Arabic version of the BBC World Service news. For a long time the World Service had been available in the Middle East in English, but this was to be the first time that a television news channel of this sort had been available in Arabic.
Before agreeing to supply Orbit with its Arabic-language news channel, the BBC insisted the new channel should have the same values as the rest of the World Service. “If someone wants the BBC they have to take it as it is. Culturally sensitive, yes; but journalism on bended knee, no,” said a BBC spokesman at the time. On 24 March 1994 the BBC and Orbit’s Saudi backers signed a ten-year agreement which, on paper at least, looked set to benefit both parties. But there were suspicions that the cultural differences between them would result in disaster. The Arab press wrote off the whole project from the start, dubbing it “the BBC’s Petrodollar Channel”.
Broadcast from the BBC studios in West London, the new Arabic BBC news service grew incrementally from two hours of broadcasting a day at the start to eight hours by the end of 1994. But it was not long before the relationship fell apart over the perennially sticky issue of editorial control. There had been growing friction over what should be broadcast, before a blistering row in 1996 proved cultural differences in this instance to be insurmountable. Angry telephone conversations and board meetings revealed that what had been meant by “cultural sensitivities’ turned out to mean editing anything with which the Saudi royalty disagreed.
The final controversy came in two stages, and the first revolved around a Saudi dissident called Professor Muhammad Al-Mas’ari. Al-Mas’ari was the head of the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights, an influential Islamic organization, banned in Saudi Arabia and based in Britain, which vehemently opposes the House of Saud. Since his expulsion from the kingdom, Al-Mas’ari had campaigned relentlessly against the Saudi royal family, calling for strict Islamic rule instead.
In January 1996 Al-Mas’ari debuted on Orbit’s BBC Arabic service, but halfway through his interview a mysterious and timely blackout occurred, embarrassingly ending the transmission. Although Orbit denied it, besides the BBC they were the only ones who could have stopped the broadcast, by cutting the power from Orbit’s central command in Rome. The BBC was furious, accusing Orbit of censoring its broadcasts and breaking their agreement, which had granted the BBC complete editorial control. The BBC was faced with the painful decision of pulling out of the deal with Orbit or compromising its editorial independence. It settled on the latter.
The Saudis were furious too, that Al-Mas’ari had been on Arab screens in the first place, and a storm erupted between the British and Saudi governments. The Saudi Ministry of Information instructed hotels in the kingdom not to broadcast any Orbit channels at all and the Saudi Ambassador insisted on Al-Mas’ari’s immediate deportation from Britain, thus ending his media campaign against his homeland. If Britain refused, he warned, Saudi Arabia would terminate arms contracts worth billions of pounds, putting thousands of jobs at risk. Shamefully, Prime Minister John Major and Home Secretary Michael Howard acquiesced to the Saudis’ demands and agreed to deport Al-Mas’ari to the Caribbean island of Dominica. But, to the deep embarrassment of the British government, Al-Mas’ari successfully appealed against the judgement in court. The British press condemned John Major for sacrificing Al-Mas’ari’s human rights on the altar of Saudi arms deals.
The second and final blow to the relationship came a few months later when a BBC Panorama documentary entitled Death of a Principle was highly critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Aired uncut in Arabic on Orbit’s BBC service, the programme revisited the Al-Mas’ari affair and dynamited any chance of a reconciliation. It showed a Saudi funeral, a Filipina living in Saudi Arabia who testified in an interview to having been flogged for going out with male friends and, most controversially, a man about to be decapitated by a sword-wielding executioner. Although the actual moment of beheading was not shown, filming executions is illegal under Saudi law. “This programme was a sneering and racist attack on Islamic law and culture,” said Orbit’s president. The BBC Arabic service was abruptly switched off on the night of Saturday 20 April 1996, eighteen months after it had begun. A week later it was replaced with the Disney Channel.
At first the BBC thought that the show might go on, if only another rich but slightly more liberal Arab sponsor could be located. After all, the operation had been conducted from the BBC studios in London. But Orbit, it emerged, was determined to obstruct any new BBC Arabic project and was formidably placed to do so. Orbit’s Saudi financiers were so influential that they had a stranglehold on any potential backer who ever wanted to do business in the Middle East again. Nor, after the recent scandal, was the British government in any hurry to help the BBC get the channel up and running again.
As if this panoply of obstacles was not enough, Orbit also owned all the computers and technical equipment that the BBC Arabic service had been using. The company had supplied the lot at the start, on the understanding that this was somehow more tax-efficient, and now it exercised its right to do absolutely nothing with it all, and not let anyone else either. The purpose-built digital studio was left empty and unused on the BBC’s premises while executives spent a few fruitless weeks trying to strike a new deal.
The sudden closure of the Arabic channel left about 250 BBC-trained Arab journalists, broadcasters and media administrators out of a job. They were also out of a dream, for they had shared a vision that the Arabic service was going to make a difference in the Arab world by setting a higher standard than the tawdry and venal reporting of state television news. Offered the opportunity to work on a news channel without the same editorial reservations, 120 of them swiftly signed up with Al-Jazeera, which had just been established. Approximately a quarter of the total number of Al-Jazeera’s employees were Qataris, the rest were drawn from all over the Arab world. Many were Palestinians, perhaps because Palestinians tend to be better educated and travel more than other Arabs. Palestinians are well represented among Arabs in other news organizations too, including the BBC.
Many of these journalists went on to become some of the most familiar faces on Al-Jazeera. If the winner in this affair was Al-Jazeera, the losers, in the short term at least, were the tens of millions of Arab viewers who had just begun to acquire a taste for quality, independent news in Arabic when it was abruptly taken away from them.
“The BBC Arabic service was the beginning,” Mostefa Souag told me. He worked for the Arabic station from the day it opened to the day it closed. “For the first time Arabs had the chance to watch Arab journalists doing the news and making programmes to the same standards as Western news channels.” Although the Arabic service was in part a foundation for Al-Jazeera, as Souag points out there were also some important differences between the two. “The BBC project was different: the audience was very limited, because the channel was not free,” he explained. “We were broadcasting just eight hours a day and it never ran long enough to create the kind of impact that Al-Jazeera has had. Al-Jazeera, on the other hand, broadcasts twenty-four hours a day, has a large audience and is free in most places, especially in the Arab world. It’s broadcast from an Arab capital, in an Arab country and managed by Arabs themselves: the BBC was none of these things. Al-Jazeera was the first time Arabs discovered it was possible to have an Arab institution that they could respect.”
©2005 by Hugh Miles. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.