Of the thirteen demands delivered to Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for the diplomatic crisis to end, perhaps the most shocking was that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliates.
Al Jazeera, a state-funded news organization that is partially owned by the ruling family of Qatar, is notable in the region for its international focus and reach. While it is only in the top ten TV channels by share of revenue in two Middle Eastern countries – Qatar and Lebanon – it has made more overtures to Western television markets than any other Middle Eastern news agency. Its international scope is best exemplified by the more than eighty news bureaus it employs around the world.
The introduction of Al Jazeera in 1996 was notable in the MENA region for being one of the first non-state controlled television stations available. It gained more renown during the 2003 Iraq war, when it broadcast ‘dissenting’ views of the war, a stark contrast to early Western pro-war depictions. More recently, Al Jazeera gained a reputation for being an opinion-shaper in the region. For instance, Noah Bonsey and Jeb Koogler wrote in 2010 that the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict might depend on how Al Jazeera covered the issue. Thus, prior to the recent capitulations demanded by other GCC countries, Al Jazeera had continued to gain journalistic clout not only in the MENA region but also around the world.
This is also not the first time that Al Jazeera has been involved in a diplomatic dispute between Qatar and one of its neighbors. In 2002, Saudi Arabia alleged that Al Jazeera had adopted an overly critical stance towards its policies and politics and thus recalled its ambassador from Qatar. Al Jazeera had similarly drawn the ire of Egypt when it broadcast footage of civilian causalities in the wake of Egyptian Air Force strikes on Islamic State positions. More recently, Al Jazeera reported on hacked emails from the UAE’s ambassador to the US, which purportedly included links between the UAE and a pro-Israel group.
While how the Qatar diplomatic crisis will resolve is anyone’s guess, it is possible to analyze the impact that Al Jazeera shutting down would have on the region.
According to the McKinsey Global Media Report, spending on media in the MENA region has more than doubled since 2009. The market is still growing, though: a Northwestern study found that, as of 2016, there are only fifty million households with a television in the Middle East.
Of these households, the UAE has by far the most dominant television stations in the region. MBC 1 is the most popular channel in the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. MBC 4, also hosted in UAE, is the most popular in Lebanon, and MBC Masr is the second most popular channel in Egypt only behind Al Hayat TV. In the MENA region, while the shutdown of Al Jazeera would be noticed, it would not cause the level of disruption it would have ten or fifteen years ago.
Internationally, the shutdown of Al Jazeera would have a larger impact. Al Jazeera was notable for its English-language programming. In its absence, other news agencies – the National, Sky News Arabia, or Oyoon News among others – could potentially fill Al Jazeera’s place.
While the future of GCC relations are in flux, it is very possible that the cessation of Al Jazeera could open a billion-dollar English-language journalism void for other Middle Eastern news organizations to capitalize on.