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Why Saudi Arabia hates Al Jazeera so much

The first frames of Al Jazeera America's broadcast. (YouTube)
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If you want to understand why many Arab world leaders hate Al Jazeera, consider “Sharia and Life.”

For years, the call-in show was one of the network’s most popular, reaching tens of millions. Viewers would call in and pose their faith questions to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric and a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. People would ask all kinds of things: Is it all right to smoke during Ramadan? Does a female Palestinian woman have to wear a hijab while carrying out a suicide bombing?

Before Al Jazeera, a show like this would have been unusual in the Arab world, where media is tightly controlled. But the Qatari-owned network has a mandate to produce ambitious journalism on a wide range of subjects (some taboo). It offers, too, a broader range of opinions than most Arab media.

These qualities have made it the most popular network in the Middle East. It’s also attracted a lot of enemies. Rulers in places such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt resent the station’s broad reach and its willingness to rile up opposition. They don’t like its Islamist bent, and they’re angry that their populations are exposed to reporting critical of their regimes (and supportive of the Qatari agenda).

For years, they’ve called on the station to evolve, or go away. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have kicked Al Jazeera bureaus out of their countries. Saudi Arabia has also banned hotels from offering the channel. And now Qatar is embroiled in a diplomatic war with a group of Arab states, and shuttering Al Jazeera appears to be one key demand.

Demands by Saudi-led Arab states for Qatar include shuttering Al Jazeera

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There are about 350 million Arabic speakers across the Middle East. As far back as the 1950s and ’60s, radio stations tried to reach this group. Sawt al-Arab radio, for example, was created by Egypt to spread Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist ideas. (It was so effective that Nasser’s political opponents in Saudi Arabia jammed the station. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.)

In the 1990s, the Saudi royal family began buying Arabic newspapers and sharing them across the region. They also developed a satellite station, MBC, intended for a broad audience. That never quite caught on, but it did show would-be moguls the potential of pan-Arabic media.

It taught the region’s leaders something else, too: that they might well lose their death grip on the information their populations were able to consume. As Shibley Telhami, who wrote a book on Arab media, explained, “this simultaneous sense of inspiration and threat is likely what inspired the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, to start Al Jazeera . . .  in 1996.” Since then, the country has poured billions into the network.

Thani had come to power only a year before, and he faced fierce criticism from the Saudi-run newspapers. Al Jazeera, he hoped, would offer a different perspective, and maybe cut into the people consuming Saudi media.

To build an audience, the channel produced content that would appeal to people. As Telhami explained: “Viewers were exposed to programming that most Arabs hungered for, from opposing opinions to more information on issues they cared deeply about as Arabs and Muslims. This included live footage of bloodshed in Israeli confrontations with the Palestinians — footage that Arab national television broadcasts limited so as not to awaken their public’s passion.”

The station broke other important barriers, too. It sent reporters to the Israeli Knesset and aired debates live. During the 2008 war in Gaza, Al Jazeera had more reporters on the ground than anyone else, and it was the only station with live coverage. It also, Telhami writes, pushed for “presentation of multiple views, including presenting Israeli views dating back to the 1990s, when few other Arab stations dared do so, as well as airing Bin Laden tapes, Iranian views, and hosting or covering speeches and news conferences of American officials — including then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, American military commanders and spokesmen, and White House and State Department officials — during the Iraq war.”

These qualities were major selling points. By 2001, it had become the most-watched Arab television station for news. By 2006, more than 75 percent of Arabs called the network their favorite or second-favorite news source.

The network’s success, however, made it a target of criticism, both from the outside and from within. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Americans accused the channel of stoking anger and fear about U.S. foreign policy. In 2012, China took action against Al Jazeera English. Indeed, the channel has probably alienated every regional leader at one point or another.

Could the Persian Gulf rift mean the beginning of the end of Al Jazeera?

Al Jazeera Arabic (which is run separately from Al Jazeera English) has also got a reputation for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Hugh Miles compared the network with Fox News, telling the Telegraph, a British newspaper, that “Al Jazeera Arabic is very partisan and it supports Islamists. I think that’s a defensible position because there are lots of Islamists and it’s a popular view in many parts of the world. It’s not accepted by other Arab countries, which regard it as seditious and threatening, but they offer another perspective.”

“Al Jazeera is sensationalist, Islamic, and pan-Arabic, but it mirrors Doha’s policy concerns in more ways than it might care to acknowledge,” Simon Henderson, director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program, wrote just four years after the network’s launch. “Many Arab governments would prefer Al Jazeera to simply disappear.”

The latest diplomatic kerfuffle has some of the station’s reporters worried that that is what is going to happen. While the station released a statement calling the demand for its closure “nothing but an attempt to silence the freedom of expression in the region,” its staffers worry that Qatar might agree to, say, restructure things so that the network has less freedom. Some of its foreign reporters from places such as Egypt or Syria worry that they might be sent back to their home countries.

Still, the network’s journalists say they’re staying positive.

“There may be things going on at higher diplomatic and political levels,” Al Jazeera English editor Giles Trendle told the Telegraph. “But from Al Jazeera’s side, I would just say we are confident that we’re here to stay and we’re committed to carrying on with our jobs and carrying on with our journalism.”

Read more:

The Persian Gulf crisis over Qatar, explained

Four Arab nations sever diplomatic ties with Qatar, exposing rift in region

Why Arab states are wrong to try to shut down Al Jazeera