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The Saudi-Qatari media war

Cartoon showing bot armies of Qatar and Saudi/UAE facing off [Twitter]
Bot armies of Qatar and Saudi/UAE facing off - Cartoon [Twitter]

For such a small country, the Gulf emirate of Qatar has had a large influence over Arabic media. Beginning back in 1996, the renowned 24/7 satellite TV channel Al Jazeera began to carve out a unique and influential place for itself among Arab viewers.

For the first time, the Arab world could watch a wide variety of modern, vibrant news programming, from breaking news, to deep-diving historical documentaries, to in-depth investigative journalism. And viewers lapped it up. Before Al Jazeera, the biggest Arabic TV channels were all tired, bland regime outlets which tended to parrot the line of the powers that be, and mostly propped up the US-imposed regional order.

For a long time, Al Jazeera seemed different. Of course, it never bit the hand that fed it – you could not look to the channel for critical coverage of human rights violations in Qatar. But by giving its talented journalists a relatively free reign to report on and criticise the US and Israeli imposed regional order, the channel seemed to offer something different.

The US under George W. Bush infamously bombed Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau during the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq – so threatening to the US empire was the channel’s journalism considered.

#QatarGate

A decade later, Qatar launched Al Jazeera English. By pouring in large amounts of cash to hire some of the best broadcasting talent in the world, the gas-rich emirate was able to launch a credible alternative to the BBC News channel and CNN aimed at internationally-focused English language viewers.

Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, in particular, has pulled off some of the biggest scoops of the last decade.

But since the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, something shifted in Al Jazeera. As Qatar began to get more and more involved in exporting and imposing its foreign policy throughout the region, so the coverage of both channels (but far more so the Arabic language one) began to more and more reflect the interests of its financial backers.

This reached its nadir in 2013, with a series of fawning interviews with Abu Mohammed Al-Joulani, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Syria.

Seen as being responsible for openly backing a side in a regional war – the same one supported by the Qatari government – Al Jazeera began to lose popularity, credibility and viewers.

Qatar sought to extend its media influence further in the west by financing and founding a series of websites and think tanks. These in turn fed into the western media, via often willingly naive correspondents reliant on regime-friendly fixers, pundits and lackeys.

As the Lebanese-American professor and commentator As’ad AbuKhalil recently explained, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia “have been able to control or influence the narratives of Western journalists and pundits through heavy investments in the elite Washington foreign policy community, especially through think tanks and PR firms. Think tanks in Washington, such as the Brookings Institution, the Middle East Institute, and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, are notoriously awash in funding from Gulf regimes and thus, reflect their agenda.”

And so we come onto Saudi Arabia – a far bigger Gulf regime, which is completely hostile to democracy, has an atrocious human rights record, has zero freedom of expression and is even more involved in imposing its foreign policy agenda on the region than Qatar.

READ: UK paper joins Saudi media group to launch Middle East news sites

Saudi Arabia has been slow off the mark in moving into the modern media realm as compared to Qatar, but it has more recently been playing catch up.

It launched Al Arabiya in 2003 as a kind of competition to Al Jazeera, but never matched the latter’s successes. Aside from Al Jazeera, Saudi Arabia, however (along with the UAE) have a death-like grip on the Arabic media across the region. Many of the region’s newspapers and websites are controlled by Saudi interests.

But now the Saudis are moving into the western media too. With public trust in the UK’s news media at an all-time low, and print titles in seemingly terminal decline, they may be viewed as low-hanging fruit by the oil-rich kleptocracy.

Last year, interests close to the Saudi regime bought a 30 per cent stake in the Independent, the liberal UK news website which was until 2016 a daily newspaper. And this month it was disclosed that the Saudis have decided to use this financial interest to expand globally, launching four new news sites in Turkish, Urdu, Persian and Arabic – reportedly arriving later this year.

AbuKhalil wrote that it was part of the “demise of Western media”.

As well as being a further attempt to spread its questionable influence and foreign policy around the world, the expansion is no doubt a further attempt to push back against Qatari influence – the latest move in the two ruling families’ regional competition.

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

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