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When the uprisings began in Bahrain, the foreign minister of Qatar flew to Manama to meet his counterpart. According to people familiar with their conversation, Bahrain’s foreign minister had one simple request: turn off your cameras. Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab television news channel owned and lavishly funded by the Emir of Qatar, had provided around-the-clock coverage of the uprising in Tunisia, the revolution in Egypt and the rebellion in Libya. It had made little attempt to hide its support for the protesters and, as unrest spread across the region, those leading demonstrations in other countries – including Bahrain – hoped for similar coverage of their own plight.

It did not come. The Bahraini protests were mainly ignored; worse still for the protesters, they were often characterised as sectarian and the threat of an Iranian influence was highlighted. The Saudi forces that crossed the causeway in mid-March to lead the crackdown on the protesters were portrayed positively and any criticism of the intervention by ordinary Bahrainis was kept to a minimum.

Al Jazeera likes to style itself as the “voice of the voiceless” and over the past few months it has played an influential role in the Arab uprisings. Its coverage, particularly of the revolution in Egypt, was vastly superior to its rivals, both in the Arab world and the West. Al Jazeera English (AJE), which will celebrate its fifth birthday later this year, has become a major rival to the BBC and CNN, wielding a budget and a serious news agenda that journalists at other stations can only dream of. During the Egyptian revolution, AJE replaced the American networks as the White House’s channel of choice.

The Al Jazeera that the White House and the West see is very different from the one beamed into homes, tea shops and souks across the Arab world, though. The Arabic version has become the most influential voice in the region, one that is capable of forming public opinion from Benghazi to Baghdad. One Arab envoy in Doha happily admits that he is “ambassador to Al Jazeera first, ambassador to Qatar second”. The power of Al Jazeera is not lost on its owner. While the English channel is left free of editorial interference, the Arabic channel is less independent. As the Bahrain incident shows, the Emir is willing to bend the editorial line of his television station to fit Qatar’s foreign policy. As one ambassador in Doha describes it, Al Jazeera is “the ultimate diplomatic weapon”.

To get to Al Jazeera HQ, you drive out of downtown Doha – a bewildering, dizzying collection of half-empty skyscrapers – and head towards the helpfully named “TV roundabout”. Behind a security gate manned by rather officious and incompetent police officers (presidents and prime ministers due to be interviewed by Al Jazeera have been known to be kept waiting for hours), lie a series of innocuous looking single-storey buildings.

On the left-hand side of the road is Al Jazeera English, on the right is Al Jazeera Arabic. (Some of those at AJE refer to Arabic as “them over the road”.) There are some obvious cosmetic differences between the two. There are dozens of dishdashas and hijabs in the Arabic newsroom, while the majority of the English newsroom appear to be white westerners. The news agendas of the two stations are markedly different too: in the week that the Japanese nuclear crisis was the lead story on AJE, it merited a minor mention on the Arabic channel after far longer stories on Libya, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia and Bahrain.

The biggest difference though is in attitude. AJE is clear to emphasise its journalistic credibility, its adherence to balance and its countenance of bias. “We do serious journalism,” says Sami Zeidan, an experienced anchor who has been with AJE since its launch. “And we do it accurately and dispassionately. We don’t take sides or suffer from prejudices.” Over the road, Hassan Shweiki, Arabic’s head of output, is more blunt. “We are a fighting channel,” he says, ramming his finger on his desk.

There is normally one television in Shweiki’s small office locked on his own channel. Now he has another two screens in the office – one for Al Arabiya, the other for Libyan state TV – as well as an extra computer rapidly filling up with the newswires, his two mobiles and his office phone, all of which ring several times during the next 20 minutes. He pauses to drink a glass of sweet cinnamon tea. “There are times,” he says grinning, “when you can feel overwhelmed.”

War brings out the best in Al Jazeera, Shwieki argues. “If there are no wars, no acute problems, we tend to be like everyone else. Reporting on the mediocre, the usual. This channel is at its best when it is reporting on the unusual, when there are wars, when there are uprisings.” He lists the countries he has reporting teams in, his voice rising with excitement. “In any single day, one of these hot potatoes would be enough to roll for a few hours!”

Shweiki’s office looks out over the newsroom, a dark and dreary office space with a brightly lit studio at one end. The woman in the studio expertly juggling the hot potatoes is Eman Ayad, a glamorous Palestinian who is widely seen as the face of Al Jazeera in the Arab world. Ayad lived for a decade in the US, has American citizenship and was on air when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11. She presents a nightly discussion show, “Harvest of the Day”, that is influential across the Arab world.

Like many other staff at Al Jazeera Arabic, Ayad is unambiguous about whose side she and her network are on. “We are pleased to be the voice of the voiceless in these events,” she says. “It’s momentous. We are lucky to be covering such historic moments in the Arab world that people have been awaiting for so many years.”

Siding with the people against the power can make life difficult though. Over the past 15 years, Al Jazeera has been banned from most of the countries it covers. All journalists faced the threat of physical attack during the Egyptian revolution, but none were targeted as much as those working for Al Jazeera. The Mubarak regime did everything it could to silence them: the state satellite provider, NileSat, blocked their signal; the Cairo bureau was burned down; most of their reporters were arrested; and pro-regime thugs tried to smash their way in to the hotel where Al Jazeera staff were staying. “There was no security, no security whatsoever,” recalls Jamal Elshayyal, a 27-year-old reporter and producer who was part of the AJE team in Egypt.

Being a fighting channel has consequences. While covering the early days of the Libyan rebellion, an Al Jazeera cameraman, Ali Hassan Al Jaber, was killed by unknown gunmen. He is not the first Al Jazeera journalist to be killed in the field. Tariq Ayoub, a Jordanian producer, died in 2003 when US missiles hit the Al Jazeera bureau in Baghdad. A museum built at the back of the Arabic studios in Doha displays the twisted metal remains of recording equipment rescued from the bureau. It also records the US bombing of the Kabul bureau in the early days of the Afghanistan war, as well as letters and clothes belonging to Sami al Haj, a Sudanese cameraman who was held for six years in Guantánamo Bay before being released in 2008 without any charges brought against him.

The exhibits are a pointed reminder of Al Jazeera’s difficult relationship with the US. But the museum also highlights some of the cultural differences between the Arabic and English channels. It refers to Ayoub as a “martyr”, a word that makes senior employees at the English channel wince. “They take a very different attitude towards safety,” said one AJE staff member. According to several staff at the English-language channel – all of whom wished to remain anonymous while criticising their employer – AJE is beginning to take a similar cavalier attitude towards safety. It’s an allegation which Al Anstey, AJE’s managing director refutes. “Safety underpins everything we do,” he says, listing off a series of measures he assures senior managers took to protect staff in Egypt.

Anstey is one of the few senior westerners who came over to Doha for the launch of Al Jazeera and is still there. Doha can be a hard sell for people with families – Adrian Finighan, a former CNN anchor who recently joined AJE, freely admits he was a “bit sniffy” about coming to Doha – but the attraction of a large budget and a serious news agenda still manages to attract reporters, anchors and producers who have spent most of their careers with the BBC, ITN or CNN.

Anstey is understandably anxious to dispel suggestions that the Emir has any influence on his output. “Never once has anyone told us to do a story in one way or another, or elevate a story about Qatar,” he says. There is internet chatter that a demonstration could take place in Doha later that week. “If lots of people turn out, we’ll cover that story,” he says, but then adds: “It’s a small country. It’s not necessarily going to get much coverage.”

Protests appear unlikely, though, at least in the short-term. The criticisms voiced about the Emir have little in common with those in other Arab countries. Instead, it is his alleged closeness to the US (whose relationship with the Emir appears unaffected by the Bush administration’s dim view of Al Jazeera) and his supposed support for Israel (Doha hosted an Israeli trade office until 2009). His wife, Sheikha Moza, is criticised by some conservatives for the clothes she wears and her support for girls’ education.

“Look at the progress made in recent years,” says Anstey. “Education, rights, women – not just the tall buildings.” Not democracy though. A referendum in 2003 was supposed to introduce elections for two-thirds of the 45-member Majlis al-Shura (or Advisory Council), but none have taken place yet. The Emir maintains complete control.

The money helps. Qatar is filthy rich. With just 250,000 Qataris, Sheikh Hamad is willing and able to financially support the majority of the population. “I’ve never met a poor Qatari,” jokes one westerner who has lived in the country for more than a decade.

The money comes from oil and gas – Qatar may be tiny but it is sitting on one of the world’s largest gas fields. Annual growth is a barely believable 18 per cent. While most autocrats would simply shovel the money into the family coffers and the armed forces – and there is certainly an element of that here – Hamad has used his country’s wealthto boost Qatar’s global image and influence. Al Jazeera is just one part of the strategy. “The tradition of Gulf countries has been ‘put your head down and get on with what you’re doing’,” says one western diplomat. “Qatar has been enthusiastic about playing a development role. And it’s got the money to back it up.”

Qatar has become a vital mediator in the region, intervening as an honest broker in Darfur, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The diplomatic activism even extends to disputes that barely register with the rest of the world. Qatar intervened in a recent border dispute between the two tiny Horn of Africa states, Eritrea and Djibouti, using the Emir’s personal relationship with the president of Eritrea to mediate.

Qatar’s growing international influence is demonstrated by the number of new embassy buildings crowding into Doha’s diplomatic quarter. The Brazilian embassy, a dust-coloured residential house with a pleasantly relaxed attitude to security, opened in 2005 and the current ambassador, Anuar Nahes, was appointed two years later.

“Our foreign policy aims are very similar,” Nahes says, noting the roleQatar has played in nuclear negotiations with Iran. “Qatar is almost neutral so they have become a reliable broker.” Money can only do so much though. The country’s small population can also be a hindrance. “Qatar has a few seasoned diplomats, but they are aware they need more.”

The football link helps Brazil too, particularly since both countries will be hosting the World Cup. Qatar’s winning campaign for the 2022 tournament has, as the bid’s chief executive Hassan al Thawadi says, “brought Qatar to the world stage”. But not necessarily in the way he would have wanted. The decision by the Fifa executive committee was taken against a background of corruption. Ahead of the vote six senior Fifa officials were banned for offences including bibery and, separately, allegations were made that Qatar’s bid had bought votes.

Al Thawadi is looking on the bright side. “The negative criticism vindicates why we should host the World Cup,” he argues. “People see a country with significant natural resources but nothing much else. The World Cup will allow the world to see what Qatar is about.”

When the UK, the US and France were building their coalition to carry out the military operation in Libya, a major diplomatic effort was made to get the Arab League on-side. But there was one country the West knew it needed to sign up: Qatar. The support of the Emir doesn’t add much to the military capabilities of the coalition – Qatar’s Mirage jets have flown few sorties – but, crucially for a western-led military attack on an Arab country, it has meant positive coverage on Al Jazeera, something which the US and UK could never have dreamt of with Iraq.

The Emir gets something in return. As part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, it is keen to prevent the uprising in Bahrain spreading across the Arabian peninsula. Despite the killing of peaceful protestors and the crushing of a nascent democracy movement, the West has been almost entirely silent.

When British prime minister David Cameron recently visited Qatar, he made a point of speaking to Al Jazeera Arabic. “We have a lot of leaders who come to Qatar and want an interview,” says Ayad, who carried out the interview. “They know the influence of Al Jazeera.” And so does the Emir.

Autocrats taking on Al Jazeera

Protesters across the Middle East have welcomed Al Jazeera’s coverage, but the region’s autocrats have been less impressed:

Muammar Gaddafi, Libya:

“Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs.”

Bashar al-Assad, Syria:

Al Jazeera broadcasts “lies, lies, lies that they eventually believe is the truth”.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen:

“What the channel is doing only serves the Zionist entity and terrorist groups such as Al Qaida.”

Inside the newsrooms

This month on monocle.com foreign editor Steve Bloomfield and photographer Roderick Aichinger present an audio slideshow of a day in the life of the two Al Jazeeras, meeting everyone from the news anchors to the backroom editors.

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