Qatar`s “new” phase

A follow up to my last post, where I had briefly discussed the move of Sheikh Hamad, former Emir of Qatar, of stepping down in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim. 

QatarnewoldEmir

Few days ago, the big question was: is Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani (HBJ), former PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs (the brain, together with the former Emir, behind Qatar`s foreign policy and the country`s prominent role in supporting the uprisings in the Arab world, particularly in Libya and Syria) going to maintain his position in the next government?

Now we know the answer: HBJ has been replaced by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, another member of the royal family seen as very close to the new Emir, who has long served in the interior ministry. Sheikh Abdullah is not only taking over HBJ in his former position as PM, but also as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

So, the HBJ era is over. It is unclear whether the former PM would retain his position as vice chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), “a sovereign wealth fund with assets believed to be $100-200 billion, although Qatar watchers expect him to keep that job”, according to Reuters` analysis. This is a very strategic position not only for the sake of this tiny state which is one of the wealthiest in the world; but also on a private level, and in fact HBJ`s personal fortune is estimated to be in the billions. 

Going back to Qatar`s foreign policy and its involvement in the geopolitics of the region, analysts like French scholar Nabil Ennasri and Foreign Affairs` David Roberts, have estimated that, despite the fact that HBJ is gone, continuity in the country`s strategy should be expected. Maybe with a different style, marked by less unilateralism and more cooperation with other regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia, especially on the Syria file.

Other relevant changes after the government`s reshuffle include the appointment of Al Jazeera network`s director general Sheikh Ahmed Bin Jassim Al Thani as the new Minister of Economy and Trade. His career within the media network has been indeed quite short; he had took over Wadah Khanfar who resigned in September 2011, with the aim of  restructuring Al Jazeera`s assets in a corporate direction.

The new Emir has also appointed a woman, Dr Hessa al Jabar, former head of  ICT Qatar (the government body which oversees the ICT policy in the country, and which introduced many innovations in the country and founded Creative Commons Qatar) as new Minister of Communication and Information Technology. It has to be noticed, though, that the former Emir had abolished this ministry in 1996, one year after seizing power, with a decree which aimed at “freeing Qatar’s media from any dependence to a ministry constraining it through numerous legislations and laws from going forward to wider horizons, especially at a time witnessing a noticeable spread of satellite channels” (source: Qatar`s Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage).

It is not by chance that, at the time, a reference was made to the “noticeable spread of satellite channels”: 1996 is, in fact, the year when Al Jazeera, Sheikh Hamad`s media masterpiece, was launched with the aim of being the first independent news outlet in the Arab world.

Now the fact that the Minister of Communication has been restored leaves lots of room for speculation about Qatar`s future plans in terms of media policy and, more generally, about the way of managing the country. In the past couple of years after the Arab uprisings broke out, Al Jazeera`s “independence” from Qatar`s foreign policy has already been heavily questioned, and maybe more to come in the next future…

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2011: Year of the Protester

Since this is the last post of 2011, I`d like to take few minutes to say goodbye to an year that has been truly amazing (sometimes in a scary way, too).

Most of the things I thought would be very unlike actually happened in 2011, the good and the bad things. When I first got an sms by a Tunisian friend last 14 January 2011 I could not believe what I saw on the mobile screen: we, the Tunisian people, are going to celebrate tonight for the dictator is gone.

credit: Time.com

I screamed and cried when I saw my computer screen streaming pure live joy from Tahrir square in Egypt, on February 11th cause another dictator was gone.

I walked the streets of my dear Damascus last February, curious to see what would happen in the Syrian days of rage and saw nothing. Yet, only few days later, and few meters away from my house, I saw a spontaneous explosion of anger, a protest for dignity called by real streets and not by Facebook. Then, again, as unexpected as that one, another unexpected thing happened, again near my house, again in Old Damascus. It was the 15th of March, and people said Syrian revolution was beginning.

I dont believe in slogans and in Internet calls for revolutions, but what I saw was the street revolting, real people being hurt, not avatars.

Since then, Syria has never been the same. People are still fighting for their freedom and dignity, in many ways, the most unexpected, the most creative, the bravest.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

And then Libyans won their fight against Gheddafi and started to rebuild their country. The brave people of Yemen have been hitting the streets since January and are still there. A tough crackdown on Bahrain and the silence of international community have not stopped the people from asking their rights to freedom and equality. Women have been driving change in Saudi Arabia, and Kuwaitis have occupied their Parliament to demand reforms and an end to corruption.

And then Jordan, Morocco, Algeria. And Palestine, of course, always in our hearts.

The most amazing thing is that Europe for the first time took the energy out of the Arabs and shouted. Spain has been leading with the indignados. In my home country the situation is different, and I wish I could tell you we the people ousted Berlusconi -and not the international finance-. But we occupied public spaces and gave them back to the citizens. And we still have our jewel up working, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, where a new form of collaborative art and culture has born, and more to come.

There is something I will always remember of this almost gone 2011. When I was in DC, a month ago, at the #occupyDC camp, a blond haired guy told me, proud of himself: “I do not fear teargas: I am Egyptian”. So I answered in Arabic and I was surprised to hear that he didnt speak any. Then I discovered he was not even of Arab origin. He was just pretending to be an Egyptian, this guy, a W.a.s.p. American!

This solidarity, this empathy, this brotherhood I saw throughout the world, from the Arab Springs to the #occupy movement to the indignados, is the hope I want to take with me in 2012, despite all the bad things still happening and yet to happen.

 Kull 3amm w entu be kheir.


illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

My friend Dahnon, the “salafi” of free thinking

In the old days in Damascus, Dahnon (as all his friends used to call him: too many Mohameds around!) and I used to sit and engage for hours and hours in discussions about poetry, literature, philosophy. He didnt` have an easy life: he comes from a huge family from Idlib and studied at the Faculty of engineer, despite having a great inclination for literature and poetry. He used to write poems and novels. Despite his passion for literature, he tried to find his own way to make a living by doing different jobs. Life is hard for the “shabab” (youth) in Syria, especially for those like Dahnon, gifted, talented, but without any “wasta” (recommendation).

Yesterday night I got the terrible news that Dahnon was arrested, while he was at a demonstration in Midan, central Damascus. He was a contributor to Lebanese publication as-Safir  where he used to write in the section  dedicated to youth culture.

Dahnon is not a salafi, he is not a terrorist or an agitator. He owns few weapons, though: his words and his thoughts. The Syrian secret service, or whoever arrested him, wants to take these “weapons” away from him, as from the other Syrian people who are only asking to think freely and express themselves.

A massacre was committed yesterday in Idlib, Dahnon`s hometown, while he was arrested. We dont know the exact number, but it`s something outrageous, around 200. Nobody can verify, cause independent reporters are barred from Syria. Those who are inside, like Dahnon, fighting with their words for their freedom, are arrested and prevented from speaking. Who`s gonna tell us the truth if people like Dahnon are taken?

Who`s gonna defend Syria if Syria does not defend people like Dahnon, literature-lovers, free thinkers and not salafis?

How are we expected to believe  the official “salafi conspiracy and armed groups” theory, when each day we see people armed like Dahnon, with thoughts and words, being arrested and silenced?

* A note on the margin: as-Safir, the Lebanese newspaper Dahnon is a contributor to, is traditionally a pro-Syrian regime publication. The last capital injection also confirmed this position. Few days ago, his main investor, Talal Salman wrote an interesting article where he asked the bloodshed and the arbitrary arrests to stop in Syria.  He asks if Bashar al -Assad would be able to put the interests of his country (al watan) above his regime`s (al nizam) interests. I think the answer to this question is pretty clear now that so many old friends are “un-friending” Syria. See also what Saudi backed London based Al Hayat newspaper says today about Hamas and the rumors that his leader Meshaal will be leaving Syria soon (his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzuk, is reported to have left already  for Jordan where he is getting hospitality in exchange of media silence).

Wrapping up the Third Arab Bloggers meeting

I`ve just returned after a long week  of travels, the most exciting of them being the days spent in Tunis for the third Arab Bloggers meeting (#AB11).

I attended the second one in Beirut, 2009, and thought this was awesome. The atmosphere at the time was that of “something in the making”.

It was two years ago and that feeling has proved right. This crowd has been the protagonist, each of them in his/her own country, of  this phenomenal 2011. Each of these people, together with the Arab youth of each country, had proven to be able to contribute, online and offline, to the shaping of a new future of the Arab region.

Two years ago I felt there was a kind of “cultural panarabism”, a feeling of unity pervading the meeting. This time it was even stronger.

When the Palestinian bloggers and activists were denied the entry visa by the Tunisian Ministry of Interior (without giving any acceptable reason), all the other Arab participants have raised in solidarity. We have made petitions,formal statements, press-releases, got all the mainstream media to talk about this (the evidence: when, few days ago, I walked into my Monaco hotel to join the jury of the Anna Lindht award, all the people there -a totally different crowd from the Arab bloggers- pointed out: it`s a real shame that the new Tunisia prevented the Palestinians to join the #AB11 meeting!). We have had a Skype call with them to let them join the sessions and put all their pictures on empty chairs in a symbolic protest for their unjustified absence.

picture by Ibtihel Zaatouri under CC BY license

I`ve attended so many conferences where officials make statements about Palestine and Palestians, and inter-Arab solidarity. This is the first time I`ve felt people being together, despite not being physically together.

There is something this Arab youth shares, beyond rhetoric. The Arab Springs have strengthened this feeling which has been in the making during the past years thanks to physical meet-ups but of course thanks to the Internet and the social networks.

Now there are best practices shared, together with pictures, videos, links, information.

This Arab youth is truly Pan-Arab. One`s revolution is everybody else`s revolution. One`s freedom is gonna be everybody else`s freedom.

The tools are there. Again, the #AB11 is a great mix of tech training (whether it is about learning cyber security or how to live video stream from the streets) and learning from others` experiences and direct participation. Sami Ben Gharbeia, Malek Khadhraoui and Astrubaal `s reflections on Tunisian revolution and the role played by their portal Nawaat have enlightened and inspired so many people in the #AB11 crowd. Bloggers from Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, have also contributed to the debate by  bringing focusing on each of these countries and on their own direct experience in terms of citizens and activists. Pearls that you will never get on mainstream media.

But the novelty of this edition is how do we move to the next step, i.e. how do we empower people to do a better and citizen-media based cover for the upcoming elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and generally speaking how do we get people actively involved in the democratic process of rebuilding the institutions and the country itself. A very interesting panel, coordinated by Global Voices` Solana Saurus, has been held at the #AB11 on this very issue, with lots of insights coming from Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans,too.

For me one of the most interesting panel was the one which featured the Tunisian bloggers who are running for elections debating about their different visions of the constitutional assembly, the alliances among them or with other groups, their ideas towards mobilizing people, etc. Thanks to Jillian c.York we have great notes of the session.

The key question during the upcoming months is exactly this: how do we turn the regime change that was accomplished in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, into political and social change? and how do we turn the blogging and activism that was “in opposition” to dictatorships into a proactive force that reaches out to the ground and helps democracy to emerge?

#AB11 variety of panels and voices has given a great contribution to this debate. In two weeks Tunis will make the first move, by hosting the first democratic elections in the Region since long time. And the Tunisian bloggers and activists will play an important role in these elections which hopefully will later be a key role in the future of the country, too.

 

You can find a great coverage of the meeting on the Arab Bloggers official website, on Global Voices and on some blogs (like Jillian C. York`s).

Arab Bloggers site has also collected many interesting videos from Tunisia Live and hopefully will publish soon the sessions that have been filmed.

Ibtihel Zaatouri has a great Flickr stream of the meeting and there is also a Storify report about it.

Thanks to Sami and the Nawaat team, all the wonderful Global Voices people, Doreen and Hiba from Heinrich Boll for organizing this inspiring meeting.

 

A (surreal) virtual tour of Arab satellite TV channels during the “revolution” days..

Let me guide you on a quick virtual tour  through some Arab satellite TV channels tonight, while protests are escalating in Yemen, Libya and Bahrain and people being injured and even killed by army or thugs.

Let`s start from Libyan state TV. At the same time when videos like this one (“Protesters in Libya shot and killed by Gheddafi thugs”) are being circulated through social networks and many active Libyan tweeps like @ShababLibya are spreading real time news of  protesters being killed,  state TV was broadcasting patriotic folk songs in honour of the “leader” Gheddafi (malik al-muluk, “the king of the kings”). After the folk show was over, a mass demonstration was broadcast immediately. Not the same one we were informed about through Twitter or the Guardian or  BBC though: a very different one, populated by Gheddafi`s pictures and overcrowded by supporters of the regime.

Using the power of my remote control, I`ve jumped to Yemen state TV. This was much more interesting and engaging than hearing folk patriotic songs! Yemen Tv was broadcasting a Japanese TV anime dubbed in classical Arabic. Not even Russian film director and theorist Ejzenstein could have been so clever to alternate this gentle Japanese TV manga with Al Jazeera Arabic`s images from the Yemeni capital Sana featuring one of the opposition leaders and showing huge anti-regime mass protests. I love Japanese TV cartoons, but I have to admit I was a bit shocked by the courage shown by the Yemeni broadcasters to calm down its viewers with a Japanese-classical Arabic dubbed TV “placebo “.

Finally I`ve jumped into the more realistic TV images of this night spent watching the incredible TV offer of more than 500 Arabic satellite channels. Saudi state TV was broadcasting Tash ma tash, the controversial Saudi musalsal which in the past has dealt  with “hot potatoes” like religious diversity in the Kingdom, women`s and human rights, religious extremism.

Finally, a glimpse of reality-TV in this surreal performance of Arab TV channels during day #feb17 of “revolution”!

“Rights stuff”: how the World Cup is undermining Al Jazeera Sport popularity in the Arab world

Palestinians are switching off Al Jazeera and switching on Israeli TV. The incredible move has occurred for one reason only: football. As reported by AFP yesterday, more and more Palestinians are buying Israeli TV subscriptions to follow the Word Cup. A subscription to Israeli TV costs 25 dollars, against the 100 boxes asked by Al Jazeera Sport.

Many polemics arose all across the Arab world at the time when Al Jazeera announced to have bought exclusive rights for the World Cup and to be willing to “resell” the championship for 100 dollars to end-users.  A very high fee to bear for low income viewers in many places in the Arab world -which is not made up only by the rich Gulf states-. Together with this, Al Jazeera Sports has been strongly fighting piracy or “rebroadcasting” practises that were quite enough tolerated all across the Arab world. The AFP reports that “Harun Abu Ara, the head of Al-Quds educational television, a local Ramallah station, had to stop showing the matches a few days ago when he was warned against doing so by lawyers from Al-Jazeera“.

“Since we stopped rebroadcasting the matches we have received dozens of calls a day from customers who were used to watching them on our channel,” he said. “If we are prohibited from rebroadcasting Al-Jazeera, the natural result is that the viewers, especially the poor, are going to turn to Israeli television, because it is cheaper.”

It seems that Israeli TV is winning over this copyright war amongst Arabs. There is also a “jamming” war happening over the Arab skies: Al Jazeera has denounced that its AJ Sport TV signal was deliberately  jammed on Nilesat and Arabsat. Although the two major Arab satellite providers are declining the allegations, there is a very good chance for this story to be true. That wouldn`t be a surprise in the relations between Al Jazeera and the other Arab media players (and the governments backing them, i.e. mostly Egypt and Saudi Arabia). Politics have always played a major role in media relations in the Arab world, and this won`t be the first time, despite Nilesat (Egypt) and Arabsat (Saudi Arabia) deny accusations.

But this time the game is bigger, because Arab viewers are passionate football consumers. And because Israeli TV is taking advantage of an inter-Arab fight. Of course, not the first time this happens, too.

The whole “rights issue” related to the World Cup exclusivity to Al Jazeera Sport is something that looked so much promising at the beginning (in terms of profit and popularity) but now it is seriously risking to become a losing game for the Qatari station.

“West by the Arab media” and musalsalat on YouTube

After many people asked for copies, and thanks to my Danish friend @moltke, I was finally able to upload  on my brand new  YouTube channel ThedonatellaDR (sounds a little bit “over” but not many other names were available) some excerpts of the festival “Occidente dai media arabi” that we held in January 2008 at Teatro Palladium in Rome, then replicated in a smaller version at the European Parliament in Brussels in April 2009.

After those two major screenings, I’ve been showing around during many academic presentations those incredibly interesting little fragments of Arab TV, and everybody kept asking “could you make a copy for me?!”.

Finally we won’t need to copy anymore and you could find this material online (it’s great that some teachers and educational institutions have been asking for it already).

Those are the 4 clips from the festival that we have uploaded on You Tube:

“Irhab Academy” (Terrorism Academy), Saudi Arabia 2006

Written by Abdallah B. Al Otibi -a former “wannabe” jihadist that now makes  “anti terror”television programs-   this is an episode of the well known Saudi musalsal “Tash ma tash” that has been broadcasted during each Ramadan for many years and it’s widely popular all across the Arab Region.

A powerful satire of the famous Lebanese reality show Star Academy”, “Irhab Academy” uses the strongest weapon of mass distruction -irony- to ridiculize terrorism as an act of stupidity.

“Block 13”, Kuwait 2001-2003

The Kuwaiti “version” (very different indeed, except from the drawings) of South Park set in a Gulf capital. The excerpt shows a funny scene with a copycat of Saddam Hussein triying to kidnap Kuwaiti scholarbus in a clumsy way.

“Al Hur al ein” (The beautiful maiden), United Arab Emirates, 2005

Directed by Syrian Najdat Anzour (one of the most controversial and acclaimed Arab directors), the soap opera tells about the 2003 terrorist attacks to a compound in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, that killed  35 people and wounded over 160, mostly Arabs.

“Saqf al alam” (The roof of the world), Syria, 2007

“Saqf al alam” has a special meaning, expecially those days that the Danish cartoons controversy has been revamped by the gloomy revelations of David Headley, who admitted an existing terror plot against Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten.

The scene that we have translated and uploaded shows that there could be another way to address the issue, which both Muslims and Danes should seek: dialogue.