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Al-Jazeera’s Saudi Arabia breakthrough 8 October 2007

Posted by foray in al-jazeera, qatar, Saudi Arabia, الجزيرة.
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In a remarkable turn of events, al-Jazeera will reportedly be allowed to open an office in Saudi Arabia before the end of the year. News of the dramatic development leaked out after a meeting between the leaders of Qatar and Saudi Arabia on 22 September.

The Jeddah summit between Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz resulted in a deal, according to an article in Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida:

  • Saudi Arabia would return its ambassador to Qatar. There has been no Saudi envoy in Doha since he was recalled in 2002.
  • Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz would attend the Gulf Cooperation Council in Qatar in December. Abdullah had boycotted the meeting of regional leaders when it was last hosted in Doha in 2002.
  • Qatar would see to it that al-Jazeera broadcasts would no longer “undermine” or “campaign” against Saudi Arabia.
  • Saudi Arabia would in turn permit al-Jazeera to establish a bureau in Riyadh.

Also included in the Qatari entourage, and reportedly present at the meeting of the two leaders, was al-Jazeera chairman Sheikh Hamad bin Thamir al-Thani. According to al-Jarida, the chairman said further changes to al-Jazeera’s management positions were likely this year – only months after the reshuffle of the channel’s board of directors.

It is notable that it was Abdullah himself who told the region’s leaders during the 2001 summit that al-Jazeera was responsible for “discrediting the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, harming its members’ royal families, threatening stability in the Arab world and encouraging terrorism” 

If the reports are true, it raises a number of interesting points. The deal makes a mockery of the Qatari government’s long-standing claim of non-interference in what al-Jazeera broadcasts. In the past, all complaints to Qatari officials about the channel’s content – usually from representatives of other Arab countries -were batted away with the defence that the authorities respected the ideals of a free press.

What impact will the agreement have on al-Jazeera’s advertising revenue? Up until now, the Saudi-Qatar rift has led all Saudi companies to boycott the channel, stifling al-Jazeera’s attempts to attract any substantial profit, despite its massive audience across the Arab world. Several al-Jazeera staff have alluded to the fact that the launch of Al-Jazeera English was an attempt to provide the profit-making stream from which the Arabic channel was blocked.  

Other lingering questions: How strong is this deal? What happens the next time a guest on one of al-Jazeera’s live talkshows makes an outburst against Saudi Arabia? Will such guests no longer be invited? If so, how will the station’s independently-minded journalists react to such an order to ensure their reports are Saudi-friendly?

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