In October, Al Jazeera played a leading role in examining a huge trove of classified American documents released through WikiLeaks. It brought to light important revelations on a wide range of topics, including the killings of hundreds of civilians at coalition roadblocks and the U.S role in Iraqi state torture.
This time, however, as WikiLeaks released more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables extending from the mid-1960s to the present day, Al Jazeera has opted for the back seat.
Its coverage of what the Italian foreign minister called “9/11 of diplomacy” for the most part has been shallow, sometimes based on translated and paraphrased articles from the New York Times and the Los Angles Times — for a very good reason.
This time the subject of the embarrassing leaks involves not only the United States, but also the leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, including Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait.
The leaked U.S. diplomatic cables have shown that Qatar shares the other GCC states’ view that Iran is the primary threat, not Israel.
This is completely contradictory to what the ruling family in Qatar has been saying in public. It is also contrary to Al Jazeera’s own coverage, which presents Israel as the primary threat, not Iran. In fact, Qatar probably boasts the closest ties with Iran of all the GCC states.
Now, the leaked U.S. cables expose Muslim countries backstabbing another Muslim country. That is one of the ugliest acts a Muslim can perform. The Prophet Muhammad, in fact, compared it to “eating the flesh of one’s own dead brother.”
Al Jazeera tried to mitigate the embarrassment by singling out the roles of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, saying that the two kingdoms strongly urged the United States to strike Iranian military facilities, contrary to what those countries have been saying in public. Al Jazeera conveniently attributed the information to a Los Angles Times article.
What Al Jazeera totally ignored, however, was the role that Qatar played in highlighting the Iranian threat against the United States.
According to one of the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, the Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani told Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last February that, based on 30 years of experience, (to paraphrase) the Iranians will give you 100 words but you should trust only one of them.
The Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Al Thani also told Kerry that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had told him: "We beat the Americans in Iraq; the final battle will be in Iran."
Assad Abukhalil, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, who has appeared numerous times on Al Jazeera, strongly criticized the network on the radio show Democracy Now.
During the interview, he said: “I think the extent to which the Saudi government—and all Arab governments in the Gulf—are embarrassed by these leaks is evidenced by the clampdown that is being exhibited throughout the Saudi-controlled Arab media. And even the so-called 'independent' Al Jazeera— which, contrary to its reputation here in the West, is the most serious news organization—is also trying to cover up the embarrassing revelations about the way Arab governments operate vis-à-vis the United States.”
Al Jazeera television not only found itself in an awkward position because its “independence” was tested, but also because the leaked cables raised an important question about its coverage of Iranian affairs, which tends to be more positive than that of other Arab television networks.
For example, Al Jazeera often assiduously covers Israeli violations against Palestinians as well as U.S. violations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while ignoring Iranian violations against Arabs such as the oppression of Arabs in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, bordering the Iraqi province of Basra, and the occupation of the three UAE islands of Abu Masa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb.
This helps Iran improve its image among Arabs and distracts them from the growing Iranian influence in the oil-rich region in southern Iraq. Iran’s support for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is also ignored by Al Jazeera.
The question is: Why does Al Jazeera make Iran look good despite the mistrust between the two neighboring countries, Qatar and Iran?
Qatar shares several offshore gas fields with Iran,including al-Shaheen and South Pars, which makes it extremely important to have good relations with its strong neighbor. In fact, Qatar’s livelihood as a nation depends on its good relations with Iran.
"Iran, if it wanted to, could click its fingers and sever Qatar's money,” David Roberts, a doctoral candidate in Qatari foreign policy at Durham University in England, wrote on The Gulf Blog.
However, Qatar also uses U.S. military presence on its territory to deter any possible Iranian infringement on the shared offshore oil fields. According to secret diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, “Qatar agreed to pay 60 percent of the upkeep costs for the Al-Udeid airbase, which has already been used by the U.S. military to launch air sorties in Iraq.” It agreed to support its use against Iran as long as the South Par natural gas fields were not threatened.
Qatar’s willingness to host the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East is, in effect, a diplomatic balancing act against the threat of Iran.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a WikiLeaks document quoted Mossad chief Meir Dagan saying to American diplomats, "I think that you should remove your bases from [Qatar]…[The Qataris] owe their security to the presence of the Americans]."
Arguably, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is still superior to that of all other Arab television networks, which explains why it’s still the most watched Arab news source. However, Al Jazeera’s failure to report on the recent U.S. leaked cables highlights its Achilles’ heel: the Qatari ruling family and its powerful neighbor, Iran.