What is the deal with Saudi Arabia and Al Jazeera?

Following the issuing of an ultimatum to Qatar, which demands, among other things, the permanent shut down of long- standing news network Al Jazeera, one may question why does Saudi Arabia and its allies care so much about this issue in particular with many considering it a move to cap freedom of expression in the Middle East significantly.

After Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a boycott on Qatar three weeks ago, severing all its ties with the country while imposing economic sanctions, they have taken things one step further with this ultimatum while demanding, among other things,  that Al Jazeera is closed down for good.

But, why?

To put it bluntly, the simplest answer to this would be that the network has a very broad reach and that it exposes critical reports of their regimes even promoting, in several occasions, very ambitious reporting on an array of subjects that would somewhat be considered taboo in the Arab world. Al Jazeera has been allowing the Saudi regime to lose its tight grip on the information its population is able to consume and also appears to support views opposed to the political regimes of those countries.

First of all, Al Jazeera is the most-watched news channel across the Middle East and North Africa, and this was recently confirmed by two separate research agencies. This hasn’t come without a price, as for decades countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have taken measures to ban the network from different outlets.

Other countries as the United States and China have also, at some point, taken actions against the channel. Both the United States and the United Kingdom claimed that its portrayal of the war in Iraq was biased and inciting violence, and an Anti-American sentiment.

Secondly, Al Jazeera has garnered a reputation for emboldening support for the Muslim Brotherhood to the extent of being considered by many as very partisan while embodying Qatar’s policies much more that the naked eye can even catch.  Al Jazeera’s former chairman, Wadah Khanfar, was a member of the controversial group, as well as its talk-show host Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who is also a Brotherhood adviser cleric.

However, there is still the concern of whether silencing Al Jazeera would be an encroachment on the right of freedom of expression, with many, as U.N. High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein through his spokesman Rupert Colville claiming that: “Whether or not you watch it, like it, or agree with its editorial standpoints, Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels are legitimate, and have many millions of viewers. The demand that they be summarily closed down is, in our view, an unacceptable attack on the right to freedom of expression and opinion.”

 

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