By Hussein Ibis, Feb 17, 2016, New York Times [see Professor Seib 2011 article on the subject below]
WASHINGTON — The closing of Al Jazeera America, expected in April, is a
sad conclusion to a project that was by turns uplifting and inspiring as well as
troubling and depressing. Its demise offers a lesson in both the limitations of
public diplomacy and the obstacles to providing high-quality television
Al Jazeera America was the latest, and perhaps most ambitious, branch of
a media empire that the tiny but wealthy Gulf emirate of Qatar has used to
project its influence, first regionally and then globally. The Americans-pecific
incarnation, begun in 2013, was partly an effort to rebrand for the United
States the earlier iterations of the franchise, Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera
English. But the American network was hobbled from the start by this very
Because Al Jazeera Arabic overtly promoted Doha’s foreign policy
objectives, the network was controversial and disliked by virtually every other
government in the region. The Arabic station introduced a freewheeling
reporting style — except for avoiding any criticism of Qatar — that transfixed
Arab audiences with previously unheardof debates.
Impartial it was not: A hefty dose of oldfashioned Arab nationalism and a
strong bias for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was supported by the Qatari
government, were unmistakable. This ideological orientation led to
exaggerated accusations in the United States, especially in the aftermath of the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that Al Jazeera served as a media affiliate of Al
Hyperbolic as such claims were, there was a distinctly antiAmerican bent
to its reportage. The Iraq war, in particular, was portrayed virtually as a
campaign of mass murder.
The real problem here was the Janus-faced nature of Qatari foreign
policy, contradictory and ultimately unsustainable.
On one hand, the huge American military presence in Qatar is a key
element of Qatari security strategy. Centcom largely ran the Iraq war out of its
forward headquarters at the Udeid Air Base, which Qatar built to encourage a
United States establishment there. On the other hand, Qatar gave a hugely
influential platform on Al Jazeera to the Muslim Brotherhood cleric Sheikh
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who elsewhere preached that “Americans in Iraq are all
fighters and invaders” whether they were military or civilian, and that it was “a
duty for all Muslims” to kill them. Thus Qatar was indispensable to the
American war effort in Iraq and at the same time gave credence to one of the
most influential Islamic propagandists against it.
Al Jazeera English, the network’s global English-language incarnation,
was much more subtle than its Arabiclanguage counterpart. But it, too, has
played a distinct role in Qatar’s ambitious outreach.
The English channel reached its peak of influence through its unrivaled
coverage of the Egyptian uprising in January 2011. Despite a proBrotherhood
bias, its reporting of the insurrection was also extraordinarily detailed,
comprehensive and informative. Even the White House was said to be relying
on Al Jazeera English for information during the uprising.
Since then, though, Al Jazeera’s credibility has suffered, particularly in the
Arab world. After the 2013 ouster of the Brotherhood government of President
Mohamed Morsi, the English network’s Egyptian bureau fell apart when its
staff members were arrested and charged with disseminating “false news.”
Qatar was eventually forced to close its proBrotherhood Arabic service to
repair relations with Egypt.
That is the baggage that Al Jazeera America inherited on its debut.
Although run separately from its sister stations and with a completely different
mission and approach, the American channel was always hobbled by the
Even so, Al Jazeera America’s arrival brought a whiff of excitement and
optimism into an American journalistic market starved for reasons to be
upbeat. It appeared dedicated to factbased, serious reporting focused on
issues and constituencies often overlooked by established outlets. The station
recruited some of the country’s finest broadcast journalists, providing
opportunities in a news media environment long demoralized by cutbacks.
Before long, its programming won awards and recognition within the industry.
However, the channel also faced builtin problems that proved impossible
to overcome. It gained access to American living rooms by buying Al Gore’s
Current TV. But that network was already struggling to gain audience share,
and once branded as Al Jazeera, it soon lost even more viewers. Eventually, a
TV station with national ambitions was being watched in some hours by as few
as 10,000 people.
At the same time, disadvantageous agreements with cable providers
placed onerous restrictions on Internet programming that prevented Al
Jazeera from exploiting the potential for growth in streaming video. Worse,
restricting American access to Al Jazeera English’s online content severely
damaged what had been a thriving presence in the American market.
Al Jazeera America leaves a strong sense of lost opportunity, and a legacy
of bitterness and disappointment at odds with the quality of its programming.
Perhaps the timing was off: It may come to be seen as one of the last great
failed projects of cable television before that industry gives way to a more
strippeddown, decentralized news business dominated by online
programming. But the channel was also plagued by chronic mismanagement
from the start; a lack of professionalism at the top led to embarrassing
lawsuits and badly mishandled layoffs.
Notwithstanding the economic downturn facing the Gulf Arab states,
Doha could have continued funding the network. But with no sign that it
would ever rise above 30,000 primetime viewers, Al Jazeera America was
unlikely to have any meaningful impact on American public opinion or the
For its Qatari owners, Al Jazeera America’s failure is a costly lesson in
how not to deploy soft power and public diplomacy.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States
Institute and a contributing opinion writer.
Philip Seib, Professor, University of Southern California; Qatar's Well-Funded Public Diplomacy, Huffington Post
DOHA -- Money is a wonderful thing. Qatar has plenty of it and is putting it to use in its expanded public diplomacy. With wealth rather than weaponry, Qatar is becoming a new kind of superpower.
The tiny state's latest triumph is being named the site of the 2022 World Cup. In the run-up to that event, Qatar plans to build air-conditioned stadiums, a 25-mile bridge to Bahrain, a new city, Lusail, which will be home to 300,000 residents, plus a new array of luxury hotels and other amenities. During the coming decade, Qatar expects to see its population double to more than three million.
Qatar will be able to use the World Cup to become better known to people around the world, a task that has previously been dependent largely on the Al Jazeera television news channels that were born in Qatar, with the generous financial backing of the emir, in 1996. This television empire is expanding [JB emphasis], with Al Jazeera Turkish, Al Jazeera Swahili, and Al Jazeera Balkans soon to join its list of channels, and Al Jazeera English has recently received permission from the Indian government to broadcast in that crucial market. Al Jazeera's channels serve as Qatar's virtual ambassadors to much of the world, providing an invaluable public diplomacy presence.
In purely business terms, none of these outward-looking ventures will generate profits, at least not immediately, but Qatar - with its vast reserves of natural gas and oil - can afford the outlays needed to raise its global profile and prestige. In its conventional diplomacy, it has hosted peace talks for Lebanon, Sudan, and others, and it is home to important debates and conferences about the world economy and other grand issues.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar's rival for Middle East leadership, must look on with envy as its little neighbor sets aside the provincialism that has limited Arab influence for generations and instead embraces a pragmatic worldview that balances commitment to ethnic and religious traditions with the business and political realities of being a major international player.
Qatar's ascendancy, like that of nearby Abu Dhabi, represents a change in the contemporary world order. Small but enormously wealthy states are using their resources to become centers of culture and education as well as finance, and they seem intent on proving that in this new century spending money to enhance intellectual capital is a viable means of wielding global influence.
That is the message implicit in Qatar's rise. The rest of the world is taking note, and that is another sign that Qatar's public diplomacy is proving successful.