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Al Jazeera's World Cup

Lee Smith

Now that the 2022 World Cup has been given to Qatar, details of improprieties in the decision-making process of international soccer’s governing board, FIFA, are starting to trickle out. There are rumors that the small emirate in the Persian Gulf with the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas paid more than $6 billion just to win the bid, some of it over the table and much of it not. In any case, the Qataris will spend billions more in preparation for the event, building hotels and restaurants as well as soccer facilities, like nine new air-conditioned stadiums to accommodate the players and fans who will overwhelm a tiny peninsula of around 1.5 million people where the temperature regularly reaches 130 degrees in the summer months.

Winning the right to host the world’s greatest sporting event should be seen as the culmination of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s grand plans for Qatar—a project that began when he deposed his father in a 1995 coup. Since then, the 58-year-old emir has been on a steady shopping spree, with a particular interest in Western goods and baubles and institutions, like the I.?M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art and a campus of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, lured to Doha with large sums of cash to offset endowments shrunken by the financial crisis. All along, the emir has been accompanied by his famously appealing and stylish wife, Sheikha Mozah, who’s regularly profiled in society and fashion magazines—most of which neglect to mention that this standard-bearer of Arab female modernity is the second of the emir’s three wives. That is to say, there’s something a little off about Qatar.

The country is “problematic,” Mossad chief Meir Dagan told U.S. diplomats. The emir himself, said Dagan, in State Department cables stolen by WikiLeaks, “is annoying everyone.” Dagan advised the Americans to remove their bases from Qatar, the most important of which is an air field in Doha that can serve as a forward headquarters for the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM. Interestingly, CENTCOM’s main adversaries—the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional assets, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and insurgent outfits in Iraq and Afghanistan—are stars on the Qatari emir’s most famous asset, the TV network Al Jazeera, which has made the emir one of the Arab world’s top political powerbrokers. Without the fame and influence of Al Jazeera paving the way, Qatar never would have won the World Cup bid.

It is instructive to consider the role Al Jazeera plays in the region. The network, said an American diplomat in one of the WikiLeaks cables, “will continue to be an instrument of Qatari influence.” But it is more useful to think of it the other way around—Qatar is an extension of Al Jazeera. The Doha-based satellite network is the most successful and dynamic Arab cultural and political institution of the last half-century.

If major Arab powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia resent Qatar, they have only themselves to blame for stagnant regimes ruled by monarchs and hereditary republics. Qatar is typically belittled even in comparison with another tiny Persian Gulf emirate, Dubai—the flashiest of the seven United Arab Emirates, with giant skyscrapers, the world’s only “six-star” hotel, celebrity chefs, and bordellos that cater to every whim. And yet the financial crisis crippled Dubai, exposing it as little more than a real estate Ponzi scheme, while Qatar has gone from strength to strength. Dubai prided itself on staying out of politics, which in retrospect was precisely the problem, for Qatar’s chief export is one valued in the Middle East even more highly than oil—political ideology. The Al Jazeera revolution was a variation on an old theme: By playing the heartstrings of the Arab middle classes with anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment, Qatar wended its way into the mainstream of Arab politics.

It was Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser who first showed how the media could be used as a strategic asset in the Middle East. Thanks to its recording and movie industry, Cairo was the media and entertainment capital of the Arab world through most of the twentieth century. In mid-century, the region’s two best-known voices belonged to Umm Kulthum, the renowned Egyptian diva, and Nasser himself, whose broadcasts electrified the Arab masses across the Middle East while they set his Arab opponents on edge.

His main targets were the so-called “conservative” Arab regimes, U.S. allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, whom Nasser accused of all sorts of treacheries. Most famously, the Egyptian president continuously incited the Iraqi people to rise against their government, which they finally did in 1958. The mobs tore Prime Minister Nuri al-Said to pieces, while Nasser punched holes in the Eisenhower administration’s regional policy, which had invested heavily in Nuri and the Baghdad Pact. According to Michael Doran, a former Bush White House aide writing a book about Eisenhower’s Arab strategy, “The irony was that the Americans had effectively handed Nasser the means to dispose of Nuri. The CIA itself had set up the Egyptian ruler’s radio station, Voice of the Arabs.”

This time around, it wasn’t Washington that paved the way for an Arab information operation, but Atlanta. When CNN’s coverage of Operation Desert Storm won a wide audience in the Middle East, the BBC set up an Arabic satellite network. When the BBC effort ran into difficulty, the emir of Qatar hired much of its staff and in 1996 started Al Jazeera.

Many American analysts have misunderstood the nature of Al Jazeera. The standard academic interpretation is that the network has opened up public debate and thereby changed the culture of Arab media and Arab politics. The fact that bloggers and journalists are still regularly jailed throughout the region suggests that Al Jazeera has not led to more freedom of speech in the Arab world. But that was never its point. Like Voice of the Arabs, it was a political instrument from the start, aimed at regional rivals, especially at the Middle East’s major Sunni power, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi policy is to use money to make things happen. For instance, it is a fairly well-known tactic for Arab press entrepreneurs to insult members of the Saudi royal family until they decide to pay for silence, thereby effectively bankrolling a media start-up. This is what the Qataris did with Al Jazeera, except they were less interested in money than in the kind of power that would ensue from attacking the religious and financial center of the Sunni Arab Middle East.

The Saudis did their best to quiet Al Jazeera, even banning advertisers from taking out spots on the Doha network. Since the wealthy Saudi market accounts for more than 90 percent of advertising on the pan-Arab networks, that meant Al Jazeera was almost bereft of advertising. But that didn’t matter to the emir, who merely increased the budget. It was when the Qataris told the Saudis that they were going to push the conflict beyond politics and dig up dirt on the royal family that Riyadh got serious. If the Qataris were going to air Saudi laundry, then Riyadh would do the same to Doha. The Saudis’ deterrent was Al Arabiya, the Dubai-based pan-Arab news network. Al Arabiya is known for its relatively pro-American views but that’s largely just a function of its acting to counter Al Jazeera, the world’s most famous anti-American network.

Just because CENTCOM has a Doha base hardly means that Qatar is much of an ally. Some observers suggest that the emir is playing both sides by hosting the U.S. military at the same time that his network broadcasts fatwas justifying killing American soldiers. The reason, it is said, is that Qatar wants to stay out of the way of any confrontation between the United States and Iran, its neighbor. But just because the Qataris play both sides doesn’t mean they’re neutral.

“If it was neutral, or pro-American, or moderate, it wouldn’t be able to project power in the region,” says Elie Nakouzi, formerly a senior anchor with Al Arabiya. “The station needs to show it is behind what are perceived to be Muslim and Arab causes. Maybe the emir stands alongside President Obama, but Al Jazeera is next to bin Laden.”

Nakouzi remembers how when Hezbollah and Israel went to war in 2006 he was trying to get an interview with Hassan Nasrallah. “I know lots of people in Hezbollah,” Nakouzi says. “But there was no way to get to Nasrallah. ‘Nasrallah doesn’t know where Nasrallah is,’ they told me. All of a sudden, he’s doing an interview with Al Jazeera, and I knew it was more than a scoop. It meant that Qatar was playing a political role,” i.e., being helpful to Hezbollah’s sponsors in Tehran.

Qatar was there again two years later, after Hezbollah overran Beirut in May 2008. The negotiations between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s pro-Western government took place in Doha. There the emir brokered a deal that many believe wrongly rewarded an organization that had resorted to bloodshed when it couldn’t win through regular political channels. Presumably, all that mattered to the emir was that he, rather than the traditional Arab powers and U.S. allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was in the center of things, tiny Qatar—thanks to the giant Al Jazeera.

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