Money where the mouth is
A few weeks ago, I was one of five people dining in a tent set up in the gardens of Al Wajba Palace in the Qatari capital, Doha. My dinner companions were the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thany, his wife, Sheikha Moza, daughter of Nasser el Mosnad, Sheikh Hamad bin Jabr al-Thany, foreign minister of Qatar and Dr. Saadudin Ibrahim. The dinner, and the animated conversation that accompanied it, lasted more than four hours, during which time the only person to enter the tent was a man who came in no less than six times. I assumed he must be either the Emir’s secretary or his intelligence chief, because each time he would whisper something in the Emir’s ear, listen to the reply and leave - only to come back and repeat the same scenario.
The third time he entered the tent, I asked the foreign minister whether I was right in thinking he was Sheikh Hamad’s’ secretary. When he told me I was wrong I said: “Then he must be the director of the intelligence service.” Again I had guessed wrongly: the man in question was none other than Waddah Khanfar, the director of Al Jazeera! I could only conclude that the TV channel, which costs the Emir of Qatar one billion dollars a year of his own money, is his number one priority. Moreover, the annual subsidy it receives from the Qatari treasury is equivalent to the military aid furnished by the United States to the largest Arab army.
So central is Al-Jazeera in the Emir’s scheme of things that Mr. Khanfar, a Palestinian who was formerly a member of Hamas, ranks as high in the country’s hierarchical structure as the prime minister, the grand chamberlain and the head of intelligence. Perhaps even higher, judging by the way he was allowed to barge into the Emir’s tent six times in the space of four hours. I heard later that a famous Egyptian writer whom the Emir consults regularly told him he should think of closing down Qatar before thinking of closing down Al-Jazeera (!), a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. Over dinner, Sheikh Hamad told me his foreign policy is based on the following simple principles. One, Qatar is small in both area and population. Two, it is surrounded by three thugs (the closest English translation to the Arabic word abadaya that he used). He decided to seek the protection of the biggest thug in the world, the United States, and invited its forces over, at his expense, to guard his tiny sheikhdom from its covetous neighbours.
I told him that while I understood what had driven him to take such a decision, I could not see where Al-Jazeera fitted into an equation based exclusively on interests. He launched into a long response the gist of which was that he enjoyed a game in which the number of heads of state who called him to complain about Al-Jazeera was far greater than those who called him for any other reason! However, I felt he was being disingenuous. I believe the calculations of the ruling Qatari triumvirate are taking into account some events that have already transpired, like the 1995 uprising, and others that are brewing under the surface but have yet to emerge in the open. However, I can guess what form these developments will take and the effects they will have. I can also bet that they will be far greater in scope than the 1995 uprising.
In a world where the basic peace is kept by "the biggest thug in the world" what is the best use of a foreign country's marginal defense dollar? Is it the purchase of more military hardware or an investment in information weaponry? Or is it the hire of the best Washington lobbyists that money can buy? And consider: there is no American equivalent of Al Jazeera. Or a BBC.