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.
The challenge now for Qatar will be how to orient the channel’s coverage towards its policy objectives without appearing to exercise too heavy a hand. Independence has indeed been crucial to the channel’s success, and any obvious interference could compromise the brand beyond repair. The shift will be imperceptible. It may very well take the form of a simple reaffirmation of the channel’s outward focus. The level of coverage of Syria, Egypt and Libya will most likely remain unchanged, with the Gulf in a permanent blind spot. Ironically, Al Jazeera English may take on the role of burnishing the brand’s international reputation, as the repository of the sort of programming absent from Al Jazeera Arabic. As the English channel is watched mostly outside the middle east, it can safely air material that on Al Jazeera Arabic would be seen as inflaming local passions, and upsetting Qatar’s neighbors and allies. This dynamic may already be playing out in relation to Bahrain.
Khanfar’s future is an open question, but I doubt he will disappear completely. He has made reference to a new project, without offering any concrete details. A good soldier to the end, he has praised the network’s owners and his successor, saying nothing that would jeopardize further Qatari support, financial or otherwise, for his activities. On the outside, he could make for a formidable enemy. But the Qataris are surrounded by formidable enemies, and in their rise to global prominence they have learned how to manage them.