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Media Warfare Is the Middle East’s Latest Blood Sport—and the U.S. Is the Loser

Who owns the widespread and influential new Arab media, source of much of our news about the region?

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A picture taken on March 21, 2012, shows a microphone with the logo of Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera before the French Cup football match Paris vs. Lyon at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. (Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)
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Earlier this week, Al Jazeera staffers were driven out of a news briefing held by the Egyptian military—apparently because of perceptions by those in the crowd that the Doha-based network is biased toward the Muslim Brotherhood government. This incident is only the latest salvo in what’s emerging as an ongoing media war in the Middle East. Last month I wrote about the Middle East media war and its role in the real-world conflict in the Middle East pitting the Sunni powers—from the Arab states in the Persian Gulf to Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey—against the Iranian-led resistance bloc of mostly Shia states and organizations like Hezbollah, Syria, and, increasingly, Iraq, whose bloodiest battlefield right now is in Syria, but which is claiming lives and minds throughout the Middle East.

Pushing the resistance bloc’s narrative are a host of media organizations, including the Beirut-based daily newspapers Al-Akhbar, publishing in Arabic as well as English, and As-Safir, as well as the newly founded satellite TV station Al Mayadeen, which is reportedly owned by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

Promoting the Sunni narrative of the media war—and of the shooting war in Syria—are the two giants of Arab satellite TV: Al Jazeera, which is supported financially and politically by the emir of Qatar, and Al Arabiya, which is owned by a consortium led by members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. There are also various other television stations, newspapers, and websites representing the interests of Persian Gulf Arab powers, including the two great pan-Arab daily newspapers Asharq al-Awsat and Al-Hayat—which are both owned by members of the Saudi royal family and headquartered in London. Where satellite television has captured the largest audiences, these two papers publish leading Arab intellectuals in their op-ed pages while faithfully chronicling the opinions and policies of Riyadh decision-makers for other Arab elites throughout the region.

In Beirut, the other great center of Arabic media, are a number of other media outfits aligned with Gulf Arab interests, like Future-TV, owned by the family of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Since Lebanon borders Syria, where the Sunni-Shia shooting war is presently most active, Beirut is effectively the front line of the media war.

Yet up until the beginning of the uprising against Syria, the Sunni-owned press was anything but unified. The purpose of the Arab media is to advance the interests of states, regardless of what those interests might be from moment to moment. Where the old Arab media was directly owned and controlled by states, today’s Arab newspapers and satellite TV stations are owned either by the ruling families of Arab states, or by powerful people whose political and financial interests are tied to states, who can afford the nicest studios and the largest production budgets for their ventures, and whose profits are measured in influence rather than dollars.

The difference between stations owned by states or by wealthy individuals who run states or are dependent on states may not sound important—but it is. Before the advent of broadcast media, Arab rulers were largely able to ensure that their subjects knew only what the local state-controlled media wanted them to believe. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the information barrier walling off individual Arab states from the rest of the world was crashed—by an Arab ruler, Gamal abd el-Nasser of Egypt. Nasser was the most charismatic Arab leader of modern times, but his voice wouldn’t have carried from western North Africa to the Persian Gulf littoral if it weren’t for American technology and the financial assistance of the CIA. Nasser’s Voice of the Arabs radio station was broadcast on a powerful frequency that allowed the Egyptian leader, who came to power in a military coup, to reach into homes, cars, and coffee shops across the region where he often stirred up local populations against their rulers—in Iraq, Jordan, and especially Saudi Arabia. Nasser used radio to advance Egyptian foreign policy, while damaging the prestige of his rivals whom he often painted—ironically, for a president speaking from a media pedestal built by the CIA—as American stooges.

If some Arab states eventually learned how to block information dangerous to them and advantageous to their rivals, two new technologies changed the game once and for all: satellite television and the Internet. If Arab regimes were incapable of deterring the global flow of information, the new information technologies also made it possible for them to project influence and power far outside their borders. The media revolutions of the past 15 years in the Arab world turned every local Arab potentate into a potential pan-Arab leader.

Al Jazeera is the most famous example of the shift from old media to new media in the Arab world. Built on the rubble of a failed BBC effort to create an Arab satellite station, Al Jazeera hired the BBC staffers and started up operations in 1996. While Al Jazeera’s Western-style production values and its free-wheeling journalistic style and (relative) openness to the Arab public have often earned it high praise from Western media experts, the aim of the Doha-based network was strictly old school: to advance the interests of its host and chief funder, the emir of Qatar. Specifically, Al Jazeera was created to counter the influence of Saudi Arabia—and to drive the Saudi ruling family crazy.

With a population of less than 27 million, Saudi Arabia is nonetheless the most important advertising market in the Arabic-speaking Middle East—since its citizens can afford to buy consumer goods on a first-world scale (by comparison, Egypt has 80 million people, but very few Egyptians can afford to buy foreign cars, or even lower-ticket items like refrigerators and washing machines). The size and wealth of the Saudi consumer market made the kingdom into the de facto capital of Arab media, even if many Saudi media properties have never shown a profit.

Al Jazeera’s news networks have also never been in the black, but this matters little to an Arab ruler sitting on enormous natural gas reserves and hungry for regional influence. In building his media empire, the Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (who announced last week he was handing power on to his son) followed one of the old rules of the Arab press—if you want attention, find the biggest guy on the block and kick him in the knees. In response to Al Jazeera’s aggression against the old Arab order, the Dubai-based, and majority-Saudi owned, Al Arabiya satellite network went on air in 2003 with the purpose of pushing back in favor of the Saudis.

Frequently described as the moderate alternative to the Doha satellite TV powerhouse, Al Arabiya represents the interests of a country that is closely allied with the United States and has no interest in promoting the revolutionary energies that long seemed to galvanize the Al Jazeera staff. For instance, it is unlikely that Al Arabiya’s executives and journalists are any more kindly disposed to Israel than Al Jazeera’s. But the Saudis would never have dreamed of celebrating on live TV, like Al Jazeera did, the release of Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese prisoner held by Israel for 29 years for murdering three Israelis, including a 4-year-old child whose head the hero of resistance bashed in. Al Jazeera presented Kuntar with a cake.

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Media Warfare Is the Middle East’s Latest Blood Sport—and the U.S. Is the Loser

Who owns the widespread and influential new Arab media, source of much of our news about the region?