Mideast Wire

On March 11, the Saudi-owned website Elaph carried the following report by Sultan al-Qahtani: "In terms of time, it was only a few minutes that -in a brief statement -Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Bin-Abd-al-Aziz appeared on the screen of the Al-Jazeera satellite television channel that is often accused of being the primary reason behind the tension in relations between Riyadh and Doha since the late 2001 when it aired a talk programme that upset the kingdom. However, these few minutes meant a lot to the hosts of the most senior Saudi official that visits Doha in six years.

"One of the shaykhs that is close to Qatari Heir Apparent Shaykh Tamim asked Prince Sultan if it is possible for the Al-Jazeera channel to have an exclusive statement on this historic visit and he did not object. This request was made although Qatari Amir Shaykh Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani, who is leading remarkable reform and development steps in his country, pointed out from the beginning that he did not wish the Al-Jazeera channel to enter the official palace lest this be interpreted negatively by his prominent guests and since he wished that this visit would be fully successful.

"From the start, Shaykh Hamad broke official protocol by personally receiving Prince Sultan at Doha Airport. He then escorted Prince Sultan to his palace for quick talks that did not go beyond 30 minutes. After that, he attended a dinner in honour of the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia whose relations with Doha are quite warm these days.

"Returning to the results of the appearance of a heavyweight Saudi official of the caliber of Prince Sultan on the screen of this channel that Qatar considers its piece of heavy artillery against its adversaries, this appearance is a signal allowing Saudi money to return to this channel after the commercials that came from the businessmen of Riyadh and other regions in the kingdom were almost non-existent.

"The Al-Jazeera channel continues to enjoy huge popularity in the Arab world despite the fact that its opponents often accuse it of turning into the voice supporting the extreme Islamic groups by its continuous exclusive airing of the statements of the Al-Qa'idah organization. They forget that it made its legendary reputation in the region by covering its sensational coverage of the US war against the fundamentalist Taleban regime.

"During the days of Saudi-Qatari estrangement, the officials in Riyadh watched the Al-Jazeera channel almost daily. According to some surveys, more than 45 per cent of the trainees in the Al-Jazeera information centre are Saudi nationals that will operate the Al-Jazeera office that will be opened in Riyadh shortly. The Al-Jazeera satellite channel was established in November 1996. It broadcasts daily newscasts, debates, cultural programmes, and economic news from Qatar in the Arabian Peninsula that reach about 215 million Arabs across the borders.

"Despite the attempts by Shaykhah Mawza, the spouse of the Emir of Qatar, to "professionalize" and modernize the channel by introducing doses of liberalism into its most recent board of directors, the ideological barriers within the organization seem to be more complex due -as some Arab media figures believe -to the "infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical pan-Arab current through the backchannels". Therefore, these Arab media figures believe, the channel will not "leave behind the scorching heat of fundamentalism except to go to the burning fire of pan-Arabism".

"Others, however, have a different view. They say that this channel is like the "oxygen" needed in a region that is notorious for media suppression and that has the highest number of cases of imprisoned journalists that wish to express their opinions freely outside the official line. A Gulf source wickedly says, that the Arab ambassadors in Doha "carry their mobile telephones in one hand and a remote control in the other to see which Al-Jazeera programmes will be the straw that will break the relations between their sending countries and the receiving capital of Qatar".

"The young Al-Jazeera channel has been injected by more than 20 BBC editors of Arab origin. The former BBC Television channel was based on "Pay TV" but Al-Jazeera is better off since it broadcasts via a satellite, in other words, it has a broader footprint that reaches many countries. The United States operates the biggest military base in the Middle East about 15 miles distant from the Al-Jazeera studios. The US Central Command was relocated to Qatar from Saudi Arabia more than six years ago." - Elaph, United Kingdom


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