This afternoon, as she does most afternoons, Maryam Nemazee will ride the lift to the 16th floor of the Shard, the highest office floor in London’s tallest skyscraper, and take her seat behind the off-white curved desk in Shard studio. She will wait for the lights to come up before smiling and saying: ‘Good evening and welcome to Al Jazeera.’ Durham-educated Nemazee presents Al Jazeera’s flagship news bulletin most nights and is one of the Qatar-based network’s most celebrated journalists. Millions worldwide currently tune in to her show. But how many people will soon be watching?
Al Jazeera is confronting its worst crisis since it launched in 1996. Its signal is being blocked in five countries in the Middle East, the region where it is based and where it made its name. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan have banned it. Now the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are calling on Qatar, whose ruling royal family owns the network, to shut it down permanently. Someone is already trying. Last week it became the target of a powerful cyber attack.
The Al Jazeera crisis is part of a broader boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states in protest at what they say is the gas-rich country’s support for extremists and even terrorists. Qatar’s new young emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, 37, is accused of everything from helping to fund terrorist affiliates to backing radical Islamist groups, notably Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. His decision to promote dialogue with Iran has alarmed local leaders who distrust Tehran and do not believe it has given up its nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabia, firmly backed by the US after President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh, plus the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have cut off all diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar. The four countries have also expelled Qatari nationals.
As Qatar’s calling card, Al Jazeera is in the eye of the storm. Saudi Arabia has closed its offices in the Kingdom, saying it promotes terrorist ‘plots’ and has attempted to ‘break the Saudi internal ranks’. Omar Saif Ghobash, UAE ambassador to Russia, accuses the network of ‘pushing extremist messages’. The pressure on Al Jazeera increased further when the mother and sister of the youngest of the three London Bridge attackers, Youssef Zaghba, 22, claimed that he was radicalised by watching the network.
Leading Middle Eastern commentator Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, who is based in Dubai, says Qatar’s neighbours in the Gulf will not give up until they have forced the closure of Al Jazeera. That would have devastating consequences for the country’s media ambitions and for the network’s 3,000-plus staff around the world, many of whom are British and work in London, which is the network’s second most important hub after Doha. Is there any truth in the allegations against Al Jazeera and can it survive the boycott of its home state?
To find the answers you have to go to a place with the least glamorous name in telly. ‘TV Roundabout’ is a traffic island set amid dusty desert scrub on the outskirts of central Doha. Al Jazeera — the name means ‘The Island’ — takes up two low-slung beige, concrete buildings with blue windows fringed by grass and petunias that struggle to take root in temperatures that can nudge 50C at this time of year. Inside the green glass lobby there is the usual detritus of a TV station: discarded cups of coffee, M&M packets and yellowing newspapers. It’s not much to write home about.
But appearances can be deceptive. Al Jazeera, as I found out when I spent a week there a few years ago, is a big network with big ambitions — and its leading figures say there is no way the current campaign against it will succeed. One, speaking privately because, since the crisis staffers have been told not to give interviews, tells me: ‘Al Jazeera is too important to too many people around the world and certainly too important to the emir and the government for any amount of pressure to shut it down.’
Al Jazeera, which exploded on to the world’s media stage when it became the main outlet for grainy videos from Osama bin Laden after the 9/ 11 attacks, is more than just another rolling news network. It is a crucial — the most crucial — element of Qatar’s efforts to build itself a future. Geographically, Qatar is a tiny thumb sandwiched between the giant fists of the Middle East’s two regional superpowers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the roughest neighbourhood on earth, you need power. Qatar has hard power, thanks to the US. The emir’s father handed a chunk of the nation to the US military for its main Middle East base. The country’s sovereign wealth fund also owns more than £100bn worth of international assets including The Shard itself, Harrods and a stake in the London Stock Exchange.
But Qatar needs soft power, too. That takes several local forms. One you can see in the vast new sports stadiums that ring Doha. Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 football World Cup was supposed to cement its role as a forward-looking global centre of sport, architecture and tourism. It didn’t work out that way. Ever since it won the right to stage the tournament, Qatar has struggled to rebut claims that its bid was corrupt and that it is mistreating the workers building the stadiums. Its attempts to become a cultural hub have faltered lately, too, as the slump in the price of oil has forced the emir to cut back on his family’s ambitious museum- and gallery-building programme. That leaves Al Jazeera. As one editor puts it: ‘The network is now the sole credible voice of Qatar projecting the country as a modern, free-thinking, free-speaking, open Arabian hub in a region where such qualities are rare indeed.’
There is another reason Al Jazeera will continue broadcasting, and it is one that its journalists don’t always like to talk about. The emir foots almost the entire bill for the network, which exceeds £100m a year. That’s a lot of cash even if you are the head of state of the world’s richest country, per capita. Qatar has the third-largest natural gas reserves — 890 trillion cubic feet worth more than £1 trillion. The emir expects something in return: support — subtle but clear — for his foreign policy objectives.
Although publicly Al Jazeera insists it is ‘not partisan’, one senior correspondent concedes: ‘We’re only 85 per cent independent. The other 15 per cent of the time we are helping to gently make the case for Qatar’s view of the region and the wider world.’ An editor adds: ‘My job is to make sure we are independent enough to be credible journalistically while also pleasing our paymasters.’ When rival states accuse the emir of using Al Jazeera to support his objectives, they have a point. Up to a point.
What about those allegations that Al Jazeera is biased in favour of radical Islamist groups? Watch the screens in its Doha lobby and you soon notice that its coverage is different from that which we’re used to here. Corpses, including those of young children, often appear to emotive, swirling orchestral accompaniments. The language sounds odd, too. On the Arabic language channel, suicide bombers are often referred to as shaheed, or martyrs. Critics point out that Al Jazeera uses the expression ‘the state organisation’ to refer to Islamic State, as opposed to the pejorative ‘Daesh’.
Some insiders say that Al Jazeera Arabic does whip up emotion and is often sectarian and partisan, but it largely goes unnoticed since few Westerners watch the Arabic service, preferring the more sober English-language channel. One former senior manager angrily refutes this. Wadah Khanfar used to be Al Jazeera’s director general until he left to set up Al Sharq Forum, an independent network dedicated to developing long-term strategies for political development, social justice and prosperity in the Middle East. Speaking from Doha, he tells me: ‘It is not Al Jazeera that is encouraging extremism. Al Jazeera reports on what is going on, including extremism. Those who cause and encourage it are the states — local and foreign — who have interests in this region.’
If anything, he adds, Al Jazeera plays a positive role by reporting more fairly and fully than any other network in the region. Virtually every TV station and newspaper in the Middle East is either state owned or state run or both, with all coverage shaped to the liking of powerful regional bodies. Al Jazeera’s independence, even if it is only 85 per cent, is valuable. ‘By covering all sides, we demystify and promote knowledge, if not always understanding,’ Khanfar says. He adds that the word shaheed is only used for Palestinians who die fighting Israel. Bias, of course. But proof of extremism? As ever in the Middle East, it depends on whom you ask.
Regional officials and sheikhs are now conducting hurried rounds of shuttle diplomacy, hoping to calm the Gulf feud. Qatar recently signalled it might make some concessions to ease tensions but that does not appear to extend to Al Jazeera. Addressing the complaints of rival Gulf states, the Qatari ambassador to the US said last week: ‘If they are threatened by Al Jazeera… are they scared of free media and freedom of speech?’ It looks like Maryam Nemazee’s job is safe for now.