Qatar, growth and diversification: What to do about Al-Jazeera?

September 10th, 2011

Published on Le Mondo Diplomatique, by Mohammed El Oifi, September 2011.

Qatar’s diplomacy since 1995 seems to have run counter to Thucydides’ maxim: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Qatar has demonstrated that even small states can have a foreign policy … //

… A degree of independence: 

These policy fluctuations were illustrated by the deterioration of diplomatic relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 2002. Relations later improved and, on 6 July 2008, hit a new high with the signing of an accord determining the exact position of the border between the two countries, an accord that was somewhat favourable to Qatar. In return, the Saudi opposition disappeared from Al-Jazeera’s screens (2). The Qatari minister openly acknowledged that the media battle between the countries had had a political dimension (3), and declared there was no longer any dispute between them.

Secret US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that Al-Jazeera modified its coverage of events several times to conform to Qatar’s diplomatic line (4). But the alignment is far from systematic, and the mechanism ensuring the station’s success is a triangular interaction between Qatari foreign policy, Al-Jazeera journalists and Arab public opinion. Public opinion is not only taken into account, but prioritised over governing Arab elites, who feel the network’s popularity intrudes into their internal affairs and usurps their ability to communicate with their citizens. Al-Jazeera derives its legitimacy from its professionalism and its role as a media relay for Arab opposition movements. The Arab voice it represents puts a permanent pressure on governments, which they can no longer ignore.

Morocco is an interesting example. Al-Jazeera opened a regional office in Rabat in November 2006 to broadcast a daily news programme specifically aimed at the Maghreb. Officially, its presence was supposed to prove Morocco’s liberal approach to freedom of expression. But in October 2010 the office was closed down, chiefly because of the amount of screen time given to opposition movements, especially Islamist ones. To everyone’s surprise, two days before the constitutional referendum of 1 July 2011, the minister of communication, Khaled al-Naceri, who had led a vitriolic campaign against Al-Jazeera (5), gave it permission to continue working in Morocco. In Egypt Al-Jazeera became the media relay of the revolution in February 2011, in spite of the closure of its office on Tahrir Square. When the Mubarak regime shut down the internet, it was Al-Jazeera that disrupted that communication strategy.

Al-Jazeera’s regional influence can be seen in the way that it can impose on Arab leaders the idea that its presence on their territory is less costly than its absence. Where it is banned, it is usually also boycotted by official representatives and transformed into a media relay for the opposition. This can unbalance relations within the media framework as the Egyptian and Libyan examples demonstrate.

There are three main obstacles to fully understanding the links between Al-Jazeera and Qatari foreign policy. The first is methodological. To analyse the foreign policy initiatives of Qatar using the sociologist Max Weber’s model of a rational and bureaucratic nation-state is to dislocate them from the network that Qatari leaders have patiently created, and also from ideological and clientelist loyalties, among which national allegiance is the least important. To consider Al-Jazeera a normal media outlet is to disregard its political dimension, as a substitute transnational political sphere (6) that energises all national political spheres in the Arab world.

The second obstacle is ideological: the refusal to see Al-Jazeera as an Arab phenomenon established in Qatar that transcends the logic of the state. The third is psychological, as can be seen from the embarrassment often caused by the atypical conduct of Qatari leaders. How does supporting Arab revolutions serve the interests of the local dynastic regime? Or defending Hamas against Israel but also against Fatah? These are concessions made by leaders to the Arab journalists they employ, and to public opinion. They are the price Qatar has to pay for sending warplanes to Libya or hosting Israeli leaders in Doha.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jaber Al-Thani told his Egyptian interviewer that Al-Jazeera was a problem for the government and that Qatar would be prepared to sell it: “We were offered $5bn two years ago” (7). Possibly true. Or possibly not. (full text).


Social geography of a night of plunder, on Spiegel Online International, by Veronica Horwell, September 2011.

Hooked on debt, on Spiegel Online International, by Martine Bulard, September 2011.

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