Al  Jazeera's Future in Peril Amid Rising Mideast Tensions

Illustration by Guy Shield

Qatar's $1 billion media giant is under threat as Saudi Arabia leads a blockade against a country Trump called a "funder of terrorism."

On Sept. 19, 2013, Qatar-based media giant Al Jazeera pulled out all the stops for a glitzy gala at New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Backed by the near-bottomless pockets of the Qatari royal family, which sources say has pumped in more than $1 billion since its launch in 1996, the news organization was celebrating the one-month anniversary of Al Jazeera America, its English-language channel that effectively had taken over Al Gore's Current TV (which it purchased in January 2013 for a rumored $500 million).

Four years later, not only has Al Jazeera America sunk without a trace (it folded in April 2016, citing the "economic landscape"), but a major diplomatic crisis in the Middle East also potentially has put the whole Al Jazeera network — one of the crown jewels for the tiny yet gas-rich state of Qatar — under threat.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain severed ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamist groups and destabilizing the region. As well as halting all land, air and sea traffic to the peninsula — also home to a major U.S. military base — the four ejected its diplomats and ordered all Qatari expats to leave within 14 days. Any hopes that the U.S., which has been staging anti-ISIS attacks from its military headquarters in Qatar, would step in to defend its ally were muted when President Trump appeared to take credit for the blockade in a series of tweets, later accusing the country of being a "funder of terrorism."

With Qatar now facing isolation, its neighbors likely will be looking for major concessions to restore relations. And Al Jazeera — long a thorn in the side of neighboring governments — is expected to be a major bargaining chip (the network did not respond to THR's request for comment). Indeed, among the first actions taken by Saudi Arabia was the closure of the local Al Jazeera office, while its channels and websites now have been blocked in the UAE.

"Qatar's emir's first gesture of good will likely be the shutting of Al Jazeera TV network entirely, which could happen in months if not weeks," tweeted Sultan Al Qassemi, a prominent regional observer based in the UAE.

"I think it's a demand by Saudi and the UAE," he later told THR. "Qatari-backed media is one of the main causes of tension with the Gulf States."

Al Jazeera's English channel — launched in 2006 and considered more professional and independent than its Arab counterparts in terms of reporting — is known to have gotten under the skin of Middle East regimes not used to accountability, especially from a network with such a big reach (it claims a cumulative audience in excess of 40 million across the Arab world).

"Al Jazeera isn't the standard news organization that just repeats the state line; it showcases faults and errors that are being made by other governments," says Antoun Issa, senior editor at analyst Middle East Institute, who says that the media giant long has been used as a "foreign-policy tool" for Qatar.

In 2015, Al Jazeera was forced to block a U.S.-published article titled "Saudi Arabia Uses Terrorism as an Excuse for Human Rights Abuses" from being viewed outside America, although its contents were widely reported.

But it's Al Jazeera Arabic that is accused of containing the more provocative, extremist material, dating back to its early days during the late '90s and early 2000s when it rose to prominence broadcasting videos of Osama bin Laden justifying 9/11 and airing shows that allowed callers to promote jihad.

"The extreme ideology promoting these ideas is now widespread in [Qatari] media organizations," says Faisal J. Abbas, editor of the English-language Saudi daily Arab News.

But for the 4,000-plus staff at Al Jazeera internationally, it might not be quite the time to look for other work.

"Maybe there'll be some sort of middle ground," says Issa. "It could be a matter of restructuring the kind of programming Al Jazeera does at the moment that infuriates its neighbours. Shutting it down would be a major PR disaster for Qatar, and also the Arab world, where Al Jazeera is still the main channel in terms of setting the standards for media."

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REGIONAL NEWS PLAYERS LOOKING TO FILL THE MEDIA VOID

Al Arabiya
Launched in 2003, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based pan-Arab network is considered Al Jazeera’s main rival and in 2009 scored a major coup in landing Barack Obama’s very first televised interview as U.S. president.

RT Arabic
The state-funded network Russia Today has had an Arabic-language arm — based in Moscow but with a reported 500 staff members across the Middle East — for a decade.

Sky News Arabia
A joint venture between the Murdoch family’s Sky and the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corp., owned by billionaire Sheikh Mansour, SNA launched in 2002 and is based in Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 media zone.

CNN International
CNN planted a major footprint in the Middle East in 2009 when it opened a production center in Abu Dhabi, developing English-language shows specifically for the region as well as an Arabic website.

This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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