“Babies – they are just babies,” a veteran Al Jazeera man roared last weekend about the Gulf states. “They are childish, they are infantile, they are tribal.” And I could understand his anger. Even Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, the present Emir of Qatar, has never had much love for the satellite television channel. It was his father Hamad’s toy. Indeed, when Hamad paid a formal visit to the Doha campus of Al Jazeera, Tamim – soon to overthrow his Dad – remained ostentatiously at the outer door. Now, of course, thanks to Saudi Arabia, Al Jazeera has become a symbol of Qatar’s national sovereignty.
Press freedom advocates have been lathering up their fury for the undemocratic Saudis, demanding that none shall touch the sacred studios of a Qatari channel that has in fact been pretty miserable in its reporting of Gulf Arab affairs over the years – not least events in the highly undemocratic emirate of Qatar itself. Last year – and early this year – Al Jazeera dispensed with many of its staff. And over the past twelve months, freelance journalists paid by the Qataris were told they were off the payroll. In the last four weeks, the Qataris have invited them back – only to discover that they were already on the Saudi payroll.
So the beacons of press freedom in the Gulf burn not as brightly as we might wish.