Former Al Jazeera Head on Quitting, the Arab Spring, and Qatar's Role

A couple of days before I met Khanfar, I met two young men at the Al Jazeera headquarters who were in charge of editing promotional advertisements for the network, which will play during breaks in news coverage this fall. The ads feature emotional montages of protesters set to triumphant music and have the intended effect of giving everyone in the room rippling goose bumps something like what you might associate with Mel Gibson yelling "freedom!" in Braveheart. Under Khanfar's leadership, Al Jazeera's coverage was perhaps not as radical as Donald Rumsfeld -- a noted Al Jazeera critic while in office -- would have you believe, but he also created a brand with a fairly clear agenda.

The irony that Al Jazeera is both covering and championing these democratic uprisings from a headquarters within, and funded by, an emir's dictatorship is not lost on Khanfar. "Democracy should come to Qatar," he said, shrugging. "I was reading yesterday about the Qatari prime minister answering this question, saying we are going to proceed with more participation of the public, more elections of the council, which is the local parliament. And I think this is a trend that will not disappear anywhere, for anyone. It is endless! You know, people who have knowledge in this region are sensing they should start changing immediately. And I think in this region, no one will be spared the ramifications of democracy."

I asked Khanfar about something that many Al Jazeera-watchers have long found curious about the network. "But have you found that sitting here in Doha, which is not a democracy, trying to help people achieve democracy -- don't you see a problem with that?" I asked.

"No, I don't actually," he answered. "I see that the Qatari society is a tiny society compared with the rest of the Arab world. There are only 250,000 Qataris that have citizenship in this country and these people so far they have their own system of ruling themselves. So we may not see a democracy like multi-party elections, but we have something like political consensus. The tribal background plus the family background has created some sort of consensus. The second issue, they are moving faster. The amount of time spent to educate the public, to educate them about their rights and open up new universities, to open up media organizations and open up think tanks from all over the world, is giving Qatari society another way of looking at its road. So slowly, slowly, yes, we are proceeding toward a democracy. But as I said, democracy which you have in the West, which has roads of hundreds of years of cultural and political and philosophical foundations are not easily achieved in societies that are conservative and have their own background in tribal way of thinking."

Khanfar denied long-running allegations that the network puts less focus on its host nation than its neighbors. "It is not true. We have principle: When there is news, we deal with the news. When there is news in Qatar, we deal with the news in Qatar," he said. "But Qatar is a small country compared to the rest of the Arab world, so therefore the Qatari news on Al Jazeera is limited. We didn't want to exaggerate the coverage of Qatar and we did not also want to undermine the coverage of Qatar. We give it the same coverage as any other country."

As for whether or not that stated policy is likely to change under the new royal chief, Khanfar demurred. Born in Palestine, he recently became a Qatari citizen -- one of the most exclusive clubs in the Arab world -- and intends to remain in Doha. A precondition of our interview was that he would discuss neither his successor, nor the future of the organization. When the topic was ever so gingerly broached, he responded, "I think it will not and I hope that it will not effect Al Jazeera's editorial policy because Al Jazeera has been going on for 15 years, and Al Jazeera today is institutionalized. We have guidelines, code of ethics, code of conduct, we have audience that is politicized and very critical of any mistakes that we may make. We have a legacy that prevents our journalists and reporters from taking any action that is not official, so I hope our editorial line is solid. We have not changed it over the last 15 years, and I hope we won't change at all in the future."

But what happens when a Qatari royal family member with close ties to the Emir, who has no experience as a journalist or an editor takes over the most influential news network in the Arab world?

Khanfar leaned forward on the couch and took a sip of his tea. "Look," he said. "Let me tell you something. Because of Al Jazeera, Qatar was placed on the map of the Arab World and internationally as a great force of soft power in the region. Of course. Al Jazeera put the name of Qatar everywhere. And I think this is the greatest. What did Al Jazeera give Qatar? Al Jazeera gave Qatar a name, branding, a position, and Al Jazeera gave Qatar a window to the world. So definitely Qatar benefitted from Al Jazeera, definitely. But all that was done without Qatar using Al Jazeera as a political tool. If Qatar were to use Al Jazeera as a tool, that's it. Al Jazeera is over, and the Qataris know that. That is why they don't push to take over Al Jazeera's editorial. Once they use Al Jazeera as a political tool, Al Jazeera is down. What we achieved in 15 years could be abolished in 15 days."

As for now, Khanfar is working on launching a new Qatar-backed organization to protect journalists, and just maybe, he said laughing, carving out a little more time in the Sheraton pool.

* -- A representative of Al Jazeera writes of the network's special report on Bahrain, "The scheduling for it changed (after the fourth airing), as happens at rolling news channels. The documentary was aired again as we said would happen, its still on the Al Jazeera website to watch anytime, and we are showing it at upcoming film festivals."

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Haley Sweetland Edwards is a journalist who covers Central Asia and the Middle East and currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. She recently lived in Yemen on a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant.

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