By Christopher Dickey
Newsweek, May 22, 2013
Edited by Andy Ross
In January, the Al Jazeera network acquired the Current TV network from Al
Gore and his partners for some $500 million. Al Jazeera America will bring a
lot of fresh energy as well as controversy to the TV news scene.
Al Jazeera Arabic satellite television network launched in Doha, Qatar, in
1996. It was dubbed "terrorist TV" during the George W. Bush administration.
The original AJ was once a mouthpiece for al Qaeda and has always been close
to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera English started broadcasting in 2006
and now claims to reach 260 million households worldwide.
Al Jazeera's old infamy, few cable providers carried Al Jazeera English in
the past. Typically, subscribers buy collections of channels, and Current
was well bundled. That positioning is basically what AJ paid for.
Something much bigger is going on here. Qatar is rich. The wealth of its
ruling family is almost unfathomable. Per capita income is more than
$100,000 a year, the highest in the world. The leaders of the royal Al Thani
family have figured out just what it takes to project themselves and their
country onto the global stage in the 21st century. They may be members of
the fundamentalist Wahhabi strain of Islam, like the Saudis, but they have a
The emir's family has used the media, sports,
culture, education, innovation, diplomacy, and covert action with stunning
effect. Qatar has commercial relations with Israel yet gives enthusiastic
political support to Hamas. While Al Jazeera was broadcasting coverage
critical of the Iraq invasion in 2003, Qatar was hosting the headquarters of
the US Central Command. And while Doha has worked for good relations with
Iran, it has also let the Americans build enormous bases on its little
Qatar has become a major presence in Europe. In Britain it
bought numerous properties and 15% of the London Stock Exchange. In Germany,
it put major money into various industrial giants. In France, it bought fine
hotels and invested heavily in the French stock market.
biggest focus of Qatari largesse and intrigue has been in the Mideast. Since
the Arab Spring began, Al Jazeera has identified closely with the Muslim
Brotherhood and pumped billions of dollars of aid into Egypt. And in Syria,
Doha has been funding and arming jihadist rebels.
Qatar gained its
independence from London in 1971. It allowed the British to keep an airbase
to serve as a security blanket for the ruling Al Thani family, which feared
encroachment by Iran and the Saudis. In those days the emirate's gas
resources were still under the sea and there wasn't much cash in the bank.
The liquid natural gas started shipping in 1997. Then the money started
When a new Palestinian uprising began in 2000, Arabic
speakers turned to Al Jazeera for coverage of the West Bank, Gaza, and
Israel. It was just about the only Arab network that invited Israelis to
give their side of the story. Qatar's relationship with the Muslim
Brotherhood has been part of its identity from the beginning.
American public has lingering doubts about the AJ Arabic coverage of al
Qaeda and its refusal to buy into the Iraq War. It offered a compelling
narrative diametrically opposed to what Americans were seeing on Fox News
and other networks. Al Jazeera was about the victims.
Today, Doha is
full of glistening office towers in strange shapes, sprawling shopping
malls, and luxury hotels. But Qataris calculate their cash flow from natural
gas will decline dramatically one day, and they'd better be ready. Qatar and
the Qataris are changing.