the crisis in the Gulf is not about freedom of expression


Qaradawi & Tamim
the emir of Qatar giving royal treatment to the Muslim Brothers cleric Yousef Al-Qaradawi


The rulers of Qatar must be relishing the moment. The current crisis has placed them in the limelight as never before, something they have always loved.

I know of no other motivation for the adventurous foreign policy they have pursued ever since the father (Sheikh Hamad) of the current emir (Tamim) overthrew his father in the mid nineteen nineties and embarked on the controversial path that has made tiny Qatar the enfant terrible of the Middle East. (see an older piece on what Qatar is up to :

The current crisis in the Gulf is not about Al-Jazeera network, as the media (and Qatar for that matter) would like the whole world to believe.

And it is certainly not about democracy or freedom of expression as many of those who (knowingly or unknowingly) took the side of Qatar seem to believe. Qatar is certainly not a democracy, nor are its adversaries. Otherwise why would the likes of Sultan Erdogan of Turkey and the Mullahs of Iran come to the rescue of Al-Thanis !

Nevertheless, nothing seems to excite the media more than a story about someone trying to muzzle or shut down a newspaper or a tv channel. That is understandable, especially in Western societies where freedom of expression is a pillar of the political and social order.

Although the conflict is about much more than Al-Jazeera, it quickly became a story about shutting down the controversial network. Almost most of the western reporting on the conflict has contained the word “al-Jazeera” in its headline. There’s already a YouTube campaign defending Al-Jazeera and freedom of expression !

Apart from the predictable moral indignation, it is an easy story to tell. It follows the usual binaries of the good guys (Qatar and its friends who are supposedly for freedom of expression) and the baddies (the Saudis and their friends).

To make that narrative work a certain degree of omission has to take place. Hardly any one mentions the obvious fact that far from being an independent channel, Al-Jazeera is actually owned by the Emir with the singular purpose of propagating his own ideological predilection and is run by his underlings or people of the same persuasion.

The network is just a tiny piece in a much bigger jigsaw. At the heart of it is the emir’s adoption of and unwavering support for political Islam, or Islamism in all its hues, foremost among them of course is the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, the fountainhead of all the mayhem unleashed on the world in the name of Islam. An ideology that has done more harm to Islam and Muslims in the modern world as never before and is largely to blame for much of the turmoil in our world today.

That is what the current crisis is about.

But the way Western media has framed the conflict serves the interests of the Al-Thani and their Islamist friends, not the cause of democracy or freedom of expression as they would like us to believe.

It is however important to draw a clear distinction between the English Al-Jazeera and the Arabic mother ship. The former has gained the reputation, and rightly so, as a respectable and credible broadcaster that lives up to international standards of journalism as practiced by big broadcasters such as CNN and BBC World.

The Arabic one is a completely different monster. Right from the start, Arabic Al-Jazeera was a channel with a cause, a late 20 century reincarnation of Nasser’s Voice of the Arabs of the fifties and sixties. Interestingly for historians, Al-Jazeera became the place where the two rival ideologies of the region (Islamism and Arabism) merged to whip up the old narratives of anti-Western grievances and victimhood of the colonial era, with Palestine occupying centre stage in that narrative. Later it was joined by Afghanistan and Iraq.

Further proof of Al-Jazeera’s political agenda,  if any was needed,  is that the network was run alternately by Pan-Arabists or Islamists, the most known of them was the Hamas supporter Waddah Khanfar. After the overthrow of the Islamist president in Egypt the channel became an unabashed mouthpiece for the Muslim Brothers.

The myth that the Arabic Al-Jazeera was some kind of a homegrown version of the editorial standards of the BBC WS – because some of its on and off screen operators once worked — is just that : a myth.

I suspect that most – if not all – the op-ed writers in Western publications – or other pontificators on the air waves – are people who don’t know Arabic and therefore have no idea what the Arabic Al-Jazeera is really about.

Al-Jazeera is not an independent channel. It’s owned and managed by Al-Althanis, and has been from the start part of their foreign policy objectives : self-aggrandisement of Al-Thanis at the expense of traditional tribal rivals of the Gulf and the bigger established centres of soft power such as Cairo and Damascus. It’s Al-Thani’s obsession to punch above their weight and to be noticed. May be the time has come to pay the price.

Al-Thanis are not democrats standing up to despotism. They are every bit as autocratic as the Arab leaders they claim to challenge. Al-Thanis have not consulted their people when they decided to spend billions of dollars that are supposed to be public money supporting the Muslim Brothers of Egypt or Hamas or any other Islamist outfit in Europe, Asia or America.

For those who have followed the Arabic channel from its inception, it was never – as it is widely claimed by its misguided apologists – a channel with the editorial standards of the BBC , balanced, fair and impartial.

Al-Jazeera has always been a channel with a cause. Over time that cause became clear, it is that of political Islam, or Islamism in all its unsavoury shades.

Its contribution to broadcast journalism in the Middle East is dubious to say the least.

It’s famous political talk show (The opposite direction) became the Arabic Jerry Springer of political shows, with the anchor ( who once worked for the Arabic Service of the BBC World Service) egging the guests on to have a fight. Not infrequently the show degenerated into fist fights or shoe or chair throwing at one another.   This sensationalist approach was copied by many in the region. In that sense, Al-Jazeera was a trend-setter.


And let’s not forget its religious programmes which made Yousef Al-Qaradawi, a previously little known Muslim Brothers cleric, into a global star. It gave him airtime to pontificate on all matters pertaining to life and death and everything in between. No one else on the show to counter his views or offer a different interpretation of Islamic tradition, which what you would expect if Al-Jazeera , as it claims to be , championed freedom of expression and offered balanced coverage. Al-Qaradawi – for those who don’t know him – is the cleric who made suicide bombings sharia compliant, and who once famously said that Islam will re-conquer Europe.

Al-Jazeera gave the Arab masses what they wanted to hear, that they were victims of Western machinations and the agents of the West in their midst, local autocrats, be they Mubarak or Ben Ali. It didn’t challenge that mind set. That is why it has become popular.

On the first anniversary of 9/11 it sent its star “investigative” reporter on the trail of the criminal perpetrators in Pakistan, Europe and America. The result was an unapologetic and glorifying portrayal of the al-Qaeda terrorists.

Al Thani could have spent the enormous wealth they have accumulated from the gas exports to turn tiny Qatar into a model for others to emulate in the region, as the rulers of Dubai have unquestionably and successfully done.

Instead, driven by the desire to become some kind of a new Saladin or Nasser, the father, Sheikh Hamad, seems to have learnt nothing from recent history – look at the fate of Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein – two leaders who’ve squandered enormous oil wealth in the pursuit of Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamic chimeras leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.


Qaradawi and Tamim 2
the emir kissing the head of Qaradawi , a gesture of veneration

Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.


  • Dear Magdi, I look forward to reading your next post which hopefully will regard Egypt’s role in the region under the policies of Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia — your insight would be much appreciated

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