Al Jazeera’s coverage was so compelling because it was the culmination of an extraordinary historical moment it had been documenting for many years. With the cameras left on all night in Tahrir Square, viewers were given unmediated access to that audience turned protagonist.
Equally remarkable was the convergence between the two channels. During my time with the network, it was not unusual for Al Jazeera Arabic correspondents to appear on their sister channel, but few at Al Jazeera English spoke Arabic well enough to return the favor. That changed during the uprising in Egypt. For the first time that I can recall, there was movement in both directions, with Al Jazeera English’s Cairo correspondent, Ayman Mohyeldin (now with NBC), appearing on both channels. It was as coherent as Al Jazeera Arabic and English had ever been, and it produced their most successful coverage to date.
Their sudden popularity in the US was helped by the fact that the policy Washington eventually settled on to ease out Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler of three decades, was also in line with the network’s thrust. The praise was a dramatic reversal of fortune for a channel that not too long ago was considered a synonym for terrorism. The alignment of both channels, and the global recognition of the coverage, in both Arabic and English, was a vindication of Khanfar’s entire project.
The internal rumors of his fall had dried up some time ago, which is why his sudden resignation last week, at the moment his star was shining the brightest, is that much more curious. Qatar has always insisted on the independence of the Al Jazeera channels. They have moved to preserve that independence in the past, and the Wikileaks revelations about Khanfar’s dealings with the US do raise enough questions to warrant action to safeguard this tradition.
His replacement, though, would seem to contradict that concern. Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al Thani, an executive with Qatargas and a member of the al Thani ruling dynasty, is expected to be the new director general. A Qatari national did run Al Jazeera for a number of years, but a member of the royal family is a little too close to power for comfort. The message is clearly that the state will be exerting more direct control over one of its most prized assets.
In his resignation speech, Khanfar spoke of having achieved his strategic objectives. It makes you wonder whether the network’s owners have also decided that their goals have been achieved, and what exactly those goals might have been.
Al Jazeera has always been better known than the country that backs it. The increased visibility that the channel provided has allowed Qatar to play a political and diplomatic role greater than its relative size. Backed by the immense wealth derived from its natural gas reserves, it has capitalized on this reflected prestige to pursue a series of aggressive policies that have consolidated its global position, independent of its well-known media brand. Qatar lead the Arab involvement in the campaign to support the Libyan rebels. It also lobbied for and was awarded the hosting of the 2022 World Cup, one of the ultimate prizes of global recognition.
The emirate has arrived. So it is no longer in the business of trying to attract attention; it now must manage it. It would be only a matter of time before Khanfar’s cherished audience demanded the same kind of rigorous analysis of Qatar’s actions that other regional players are subject to on Al Jazeera. In the past, it was always argued that due to its tiny population and negligible role in world affairs, Qatar did not merit inclusion in any editorial agenda.
That is no longer the case, and Qatar does not appear ready for that sort of introspection. Qatar agreed recently, along with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to protect Bahrain’s monarchy during that country’s popular uprising. These rulers want to forestall the Arab Spring in the Gulf, and they will sleep more soundly following Khanfar’s resignation.