Since Wadah Khanfar stepped down from his position at Al Jazeera network few days ago, lots of speculation have been going on.
I`ve got lots of emails and questions from friends, colleagues and readers of this blog.
…Why he stepped down, what`s the real story behind?
Of course I`m not aware of the real reason behind this move which left everybody with great surprise, happening just few months before the 15th birthday of the channel (had it been just a “normal” resignation, I dont think it would have occurred only few months before the biggest event planned this year, the celebration of Al Jazeera`s anniversary. That would have been simply more logic and logistically better to have the big boss leaving after, I guess..).
But I`m pretty sure about the reasons which did not play an important role in Khanfar`s resignation.
He did not leave the network because of the Wikileaks affair. The US has never been the real “enemy” for Al Jazeera but a great media story, the giant super power fighting the small channel which eventually wins and gets bigger and bigger. It has been like that since the very beginning.
While Al Jazeera was denouncing the US-led occupation war to Iraq in 2003, it was exactly from Qatar that this war was being initiated and the warplanes sent.
Officially, there are endless disputes between the US administration (much more on the Bush old one, of course) and Al Jazeera.
Under the table, US and Qatar are such best friends, and have been like that for many years. There is an agreement between the two countries, and being Al Jazeera the biggest diplomatic weapon in the hands of Qatar, it can not be out of the deal.
If Al Jazeera pulls its arrows against the US and its policies towards the Middle East, this does not change the fact that we are speaking about media arrows only. It is a cosmetic battle, fought according the rules of media, not according the rules of politics.
To prove this, it would be enough to read the following piece, which was out few days ago on Kuwait News Agency Kuna. “US officials praise Qatar leadership in Mideast” , it titles.
The article tells about a side meeting between US State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani which occured on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York.
The top issues being discussed during the meeting would have been Libya and Syria. Concerning the latter, a senior US official quoted in the same article by Kuna -but without giving his name- would have said that:
” ..given that Qatar has had a long relationship with Syria, the Secretary also raised our concerns with Syria with the Emir, because the Emir is able to talk to Syria in a different way than we’re able to talk to the Syrians”.
“They compared notes on how the region and the international community can, again, work together to push back against the type of killing and atrocities you see taking place in Syria, and to show support for the struggle of the Syrian people for dignity, freedom, and to participate in how they are governed”.
So what does this article tell us about Khanfar`s resignation?
First, that US-Qatari relations are excellent, so Wikileaks is just a media hype which doesnt ruin the ongoing honeymoon between the two countries.
Second, Qatar is the country to talk to when it comes to the Arab springs and the new Arab world map. The US acknowledges it, by holding separate talks with the Emir at the UN meeting. Indeed, Khanfar has indirectly participated in building this international reputation of Qatar, where Al Jazeera stands as a key diplomatic weapon in the hands of the Emir. And it was under Khanfar`s management that Al Jazeera became the “revolutionary network par excellence”. It was under his visionary leadership that it entered the new media space, becoming the “coolest” broadcast brand on the Internet, enjoying an extraordinary presence in social networks and social media domains. It was under Khanfar`s leadership that the network finally achieved a reputation as a global player even in the US (remember the success of the “Demand Al Jazeera” campaign).
Third, Syria. This is probably the most obscure point, where Khanfar`s resignation becomes eventually tied to a sort of “political deal”.
“the Emir is able to talk to Syria in a different way than we’re able to talk to the Syrians”, says the anonymous US senior official quoted by the Kuna article.
He is right. There is a special relation which ties Qatar and Syria, and this is not only made by the financial ties and investments that were bounding the two countries before the Syrian uprising started last March.
The Qatari royal family has bought lands and castles in Syria, not only for investment reasons and not in the same way they buy land in Switzerland.
There are historical ties which bound the Bin Tamim tribe (from which the Qatar royal family Al Thani descends) and Syria.
A musalsal financed last year by Qatar and produced by the Syrian company SAPI (tied to Dunyia TV channel) celebrated this bound through an historical figure, Al Qa`qa bin Al Tamimi, who is an hero of the Islamic history and an ancestor of the Al Thani family (one of Sheikh Hamad al Thani youngest sons` name is Al Qa`qa..not by chance).
So Qatar and Syria are historically related. Qatar royal family feels this emotional bound, even before the financial ties. It is clear that Sheikh Hamad knows how to talk to Syrians in a way that nobody else knows, as the US senior official points out in Kuna`s article.
But so far none of the Qatari offers to Syria has worked. Few days ago, an article by Boutheina Shaaban`s close friend Sami Moubayed was titled: “An offer that Syria shouldn`t have refused” . He precisely refers to the “offer” that was made through Qatar. Moubayed calls it “the brainchild of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifah al Thani, once a close friend of Damascus”.
He calls it a “golden opportunity” but stresses on the fact that Syrians should have taken it and re-brand it as “Syrian initiative“, which would be a “win-win formula both for the Syrian government and for the Syrian street”.
So far, Syria has not jumped on it “precisely because of the Qatari connection”, says Moubayed and adds “the Syrians would not accept it as it stands”.
Rumors have been circulating that Turkey and Qatar are still at negotiations with Syria to stop the violence, and Khanfar`s head might have been part of the deal. In this scenario, probably a Qatari member of the al-Thani family would know much better than a Palestinian born which tribal ties bound Syria and Qatar. Khanfar`s head would have been a sacrifice paid as part of the negotiations with Syria.
This might be just another “conspiracy theory” coming from the Arabs. It might be a good one though, which takes into account the historical ties between Qatar and Syria and puts the latter in a different, more privileged position vis-a-vis the “revolutionary movement” openly supported by Al Jazeera -and deeply backed by Qatar,too, although in a less direct way-.
This might also match with the “new” Al Jazeera grid that started few weeks ago. An “old new” grid that has been restored after months and months of revolutions-only coverage. Since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution in fact, Khanfar had stopped the normal flow of programs and talk shows in Al Jazeera Arabic and devoted 24 hours coverage to the revolutions. The few programs going on were in any case related to the revolutions –“Hadith at-thawra” and “Iqtisad at’thawra”-.
Al Jazeera Arabic grid has been a “revolutionary grid” till few weeks ago, when we saw the “old new” programs, like Faisal al Qasem`s show “al Ittijah al moakis” coming back on air weekly. This might be a clear signal of the end of the strictly “revolutionary” period in Al Jazeera Arabic.
This might mean that, after the fall of Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya regimes, all the other ongoing revolutions -Bahrain, Yemen and, of course, Syria- will be dealt in a different way. As a part of the “normal” flow of information, not as a “cause”.
All this might reasonably be true.
But there is something I also know about the history of Al Jazeera, since the very first time I visited the station in early 2000s.
First, the choice of this new director might be a temporary choice, him being just an “interim” director before another one comes into the scene.
Second, Al Jazeera is a “brand”, a “philosophy” which is bigger than those who lead the network. The journalists who stay will make sure that “the opinion and counter opinion” is preserved, in different ways, of course, but I`m sure the general philosophy will stay.
Third, the Emir of Qatar is too smart to put somebody from the royal family at the top of Al Jazeera just to strengthen his control over the network. He is much more sophisticated than this. His diplomatic strategy over the past years has been sophisticated,too and, if Khanfar`s resignation has anything to do with Qatar foreign policy -or with the Syria issue- this will be a clever move. Can`t be such a plain thing as achieving a more direct control over the network by putting there a member of the Al Thani family.
And Khanfar will find another place where to exercise his talent. In the past few years, he has proven to be a clever manager, not a clever Arab manager.
The doors of global networks should be wide open to him.