Earlier this month, managers at Al Jazeera, the most popular news channel in the Arab world, summoned nervous journalists into a glass-paneled conference room in the network’s headquarters in Doha. A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia had just imposed an embargo on Qatar, closing its airspace and expelling thousands of Qatari citizens. One of the conditions for lifting the blockade, according to a list leaked on Thursday, was reportedly the closure of Al Jazeera. The network’s leadership wanted to reassure its staff that their jobs were safe. “We’re not planning any changes right now,” journalists were told, according to two participants in the meeting. That left quite a bit unsaid. (I resigned from Al Jazeera English in mid-2013 after working there for nearly four years.)
Closing the station was an extreme demand, like the others on the 13-point list released late this week. Taken as a whole, the list asks Doha to do nothing short of change its entire foreign policy. The crisis shows no signs of ending—because, as the Al Jazeera matter illustrates, it is a chance for Qatar’s neighbors to air grievances they have harbored for years, if not decades.
Founded in 1996, Al Jazeera quickly rose to prominence by offering a medium for freewheeling debate and criticism of the region’s aging, authoritarian rulers. The one exception, of course, was reporting on Qatar itself, where the network took a noticeably light touch. In 1999, when the longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak visited its cramped studios, he was said to remark, “all that noise from this matchbox?”