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.

The 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.

Because of 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 wide-open worldview.

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 peninsula.

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.

But the 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 flooding in.

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.

The 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.