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Does the resignation of Al-Jazeera Director-General signal a change in state policies?

January 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

The resignation of the Director-General of satellite TV network Al-Jazeera has caused an uproar befitting the status of the man charged with drafting the policies of the most important media channel in the Arab world. As long ago as April 2004 Wadah Khanfar was named by America’s Time magazine among the 100 most influential individuals in the world. The most salient explanation for his resignation lies in an apparent agreement between Mr. Khanfar and American diplomats involving the nature of material broadcast by the channel. What might be termed ideological warfare has consumed Al-Jazeera’s inner-circle, with the Islamically-conservative Muslim Brotherhood doctrine close to Khanfar pitched against the liberals who are opposed to Arab nationalist demagogy and are, in turn, more open and flexible towards Washington and Israel.


Some sources linked to Qatari diplomats say that the huge US military base in Qatar and Qatar’s good relations with Washington and Tel Aviv do not sit easily with Al-Jazeera’s apparently close affinity with Palestinian resistance groups and Hezbollah in Lebanon.


Indications coming out of Doha suggest that Qatar is now getting closer to the Gulf’s general sensitivity towards the Arab revolutionaries, and Shiite protestors in Bahrain, and are falling more in line with Washington’s policies. Wadah Khanfar understood the complex contradictions of national policy very well to the extent that his continued tenure at Al-Jazeera is now not deemed to be feasible.

It remains to be seen what effect the Director-General’s resignation will have on Al-Jazeera’s policies. Some observers are not convinced about the reasoning behind Wadah Khanfar’s departure. According to well-informed sources in Doha, the resignation is linked to a change in national policies within the Qatar government. The illness of Shiekh Hamad bin Khalifah al Thani is at such a stage that his rule is not expected to last much longer and the transition of power to his son, Prince Tamim, planned to take place over the next two years, has already been set in motion.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani, 31, is a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He has already made an appearance on the new Arab political scene, having visited Cairo on 30th June where he met the commander of the armed forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

It is claimed that the Crown Prince’s political vision is close to that of his mother, Sheikha Mozah Nasser Al Musnid, who is credited with the creation of Al-Jazeera’s English language channel. This wing of the Al-Jazeera group is administered by a Western conglomerate which has received warm tributes from the American media. Apparently Sheikh Tamim is expected to work with a similar group, not only at Al-Jazeera – whose new D-G has been named as Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, the powerhouse behind Qatar Petroleum   but also in respect of the state’s overall policies. There is a clear possibility of a clash with the influential Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jabr Al Thani, on this issue.

Regular Al-Jazeera watchers will have noticed that changes in the channel’s output and style have preceded Wadah Khanfar’s resignation. When, for example, Turkey announced its decision to expel the Israeli ambassador to Ankara at the beginning of September, Al-Jazeera treated this is secondary news, about four places down on the news headlines and even then only for a very short time. Contrast this with the prominence given on Al-Jazeera news bulletins to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan storming out of the Davos Forum platform in 2009 in protest at comments made by Israel’s President Shimon Peres about the Gaza war; it was headline news.

On the day that Mr. Khanfar’s resignation was announced, Al-Jazeera Study Centre cancelled a seminar on “Islamists and the Arab revolutions”, scheduled to be held in Doha on October 1. This is regarded by observers to be highly significant.

The pace at which Al-Jazeera’s new policies will be enacted is still not clear; nor do we know if there will be a swift re-evaluation of Khanfar’s projects such as Al-Jazeera Live which covered events in Egypt and is operated by a management group alleged to have Islamist inclinations. Just two weeks ago the Egyptian authorities brought Al-Jazeera Live’s broadcast to a halt on the pretext of it not having a licence fit for purpose in the wake of the coverage of events at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Again, it is perhaps significant that the authorities have not closed down any other unlicenced media.

The fate of Al-Jazeera Live, which has been broadcasting the revolutionary songs of Sheikh Imam   a symbol of the opposition during the Anwar Sadat era   in celebration of the Egyptian revolution is the end of the contribution of the channel which has supported the Arab revolutions. Its fate will be decided in Doha and the result will tell us a lot about the policies of the new Director-General (and the government-in-waiting).

Whatever happens, it seems unlikely that the world will again witness a young revolutionary such as Nawara Najm who spoke on Al Jazeera on the day that Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. Her now famous words – “Thank you Tunisia, thank you Al Jazeera, no more fear, no more oppression” – look as if they will be a fitting tribute to the Wadah Khanfar era. With all of its complexity and influence, he made the news channel more important than the policies of the state which launched it. Perhaps that is why he has had to step down.

*The author Amira Huweidi is an egyptian writer.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.