Analysis

Don’t Write Off Al Jazeera Just Yet

The Qatar-funded television network is paying the price for its boldness and support of the Muslim Brotherhood. As it downsizes, it needs to reach a new audience.

The newsroom at the headquarters of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel in Doha.
REUTERS

Dr. Mustafa Sawaq, the acting general manager of the Al Jazeera television network, didn’t offer a detailed explanation about last week’s decision to lay off 500 employees.

“Over the past few months, we have carefully evaluated every option available to the network, in order to ensure that we are best positioned in light of large-scale changes in the global media landscape,” he wrote. “However, we are confident it’s the right step to ensure the network’s long-term competitiveness and development.”

However, this explanation is insufficient, especially in light of the fact that the cuts were made a few months after shuttering Al Jazeera America (which operated for about two and a half years).

The economic arguments make sense, especially considering the losses incurred by Qatar, the network’s owner, following the collapse of oil and gas prices, and which made some cuts necessary. Although no data are available on the network’s finances, according to one media researcher the entire network received some $2 billion a year (including for its English-language stations). For sake of comparison, the network started out with a $25 million budget in 1996 and with a $100-million budget for the English-language channel (which was separate from Al Jazeera America).

In any event, it was a huge budget supporting over 5,000 employees (not including the U.S. station). A 10 percent manpower cut, therefore, is a significant saving, especially when the network doesn’t enjoy major advertising revenues and relies primarily on advertising from Qatari companies close to the regime. Major Arab companies rarely advertise on the network, with it being seen as an enemy of many Arab regimes thanks to its criticism of them and their leaders.

However, when Qatar is spending billions on preparations for hosting soccer’s World Cup in 2022, and when Princess Moza bint Nasser, the second of three wives of the former Emir of Qatar, spends tens of millions of dollars acquiring art objects for a museum in Qatar – it’s hard to explain the cuts solely in economic terms. One must therefore assume that the crises facing Qatar in regard to its relations with other Arab states because of the station also influenced the decision.

The last crisis erupted in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states severed diplomatic relations with Qatar because of what they called interference in the affairs of other Arab states. This was a response to Al Jazeera’s continued support of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. Qatar eventually bowed to the pressure, closing the Al Jazeera Egypt outlet last September. It also ordered network managers to temper criticism of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

According to some Arab media commentators, it seems the new Qatari ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is not thrilled by the way in which Al Jazeera influences the emirate’s foreign policy, and he may think the idea of using a television network for propaganda no longer serves a purpose in the world.

This reevaluation is not without substance, given the revolutionary changes the Arab media has undergone in recent years. In 1996, when Al Jazeera was launched, its main competitor was the MBC network, which had yet to decide on an agenda. The BBC Arabic Television network was at its zenith at the time but couldn’t compete with the dynamic new network, which had the goal of bringing Arab viewers the “opposite direction” – as seen by the name of one of its flagship programs. Since then, some 2,000 satellite stations have launched, based in Arab countries, Iran and Turkey. And, like in the West, social media provides satellite networks with their toughest competition.

It’s hard to know how the ratings competition affects Al Jazeera, as no viewership numbers are available. However, observers believe viewership dropped dramatically after the network sided with the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera, it seems, became a victim of the media revolution that it fomented. It offers fewer innovations and doesn’t appeal to new audiences by expanding broadcasts in foreign languages – like, for example, Deutsche Welle and Russian Sputnik. Its attempts to establish a Spanish outlet failed. And while the Saudi Al Arabiya homepage also publishes in Persian, Urdu (spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and English, as well as Arabic, Al Jazeera publishes only in Turkish and English.

It’s likely this is what the network’s general manager meant when he spoke of cutting personnel as a means of strengthening the network in other countries. But the question is whether it will succeed in attracting a new audience among the more than 1.7 billion Muslims around the world.

Despite it all, one shouldn’t prematurely mourn Al Jazeera. It doesn’t intend to disappear from the screen anytime soon, and still maintains its leading position and remains an influential information source. Rather, it needs a new news strategy so it can not only survive financially, but also fulfill the mission it received when it was established 20 years ago.