Disrupting Arabian Nights

Historically, communicating to an Arab audience was by no means an easy task. On the contrary, it was often reminiscent of a repetitive game of broken telephone; where the similarities between the message sent and the message received were sometimes none. Owing to negligence and underdevelopment of the sidelined ex-wilayats of the Ottoman Empire (1350-1918), the Arabs suffered large levels of illiteracy. As a result, there was no other option except oral communication to relay messages to an Arab audience.

Meanwhile, Europe was busy with the printing press revolution that (some) Islamic scholars pronounced as a dangerous bida’aan anti-Islamic innovation that could ultimately lead to disbelief in God. The strange Ottoman war on the printing press that lasted for 200 years compounded the already problematic literacy rates of the Arabs under the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, the mainstream understanding of Islam as a lifestyle, as opposed to just a faith, meant that Islam provided a comprehensive library of teachings on pretty much every aspect of life. This left very little room for the need for a different source of information, explaining the low levels of excitement amongst the Arab Ottoman ex-wilayats for the arrival of the printing press. The end result was oral communication through public criers, traveling Islamic preachers, and messengers. 

Communicating orally to an Arab audience in the ex-wilayats meant that only one version of the story made it to one community at a time. And so members of one community shared the same story. Yet, even though members of a single Ottoman Arab community ‘shared the same story’, they didn’t always get the ‘right story’; the intended story. This is because oral communication is always open to hijackers who can distort the message at any level of the transaction. And so the only way to communicate with the Arabs became a terrible way to communicate with the Arabs. Until the next big innovation in communication technology arrived; broadcasting.

Broadcasting was to the Arab world what the printing press was to Europe; a revolution. It allowed a radical change in the scale, speed, and frequency of communication with a now self-ruling Arab audience, while still bypassing the structural literacy problem. And for the first time, the message sent was exactly the same message received.

Soon enough, broadcasting was identified for its potential as a game-changer in the region by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. On July 4, 1953, Nasser’s disrupting experiment began. He debuted his 30-minute show, Sawt Al Arab (the voice of Arabs) on Cairo Radio that would soon become the most successful communication experiment of any Arab leader, to date. In a stroke of novelty, the young Nasser was the first Arab leader to ever attempt speaking to all the Arabs. At that time, Egypt possessed the best transmitter capabilities of any Arab country and hence was unmatched in its technological superiority to reach more audiences than any emerging competing broadcaster. Soon, the Arab streets were full, with only one man.

Nasser’s political orientations were born in a struggle for anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and cementing Egyptian nationalism. When he first started his grand communication experiment, he had almost mirrored the sentiments of the Arab street, finding a waiting audience. The Arabs had found their dignity, in the shades of his voice. Soon, Sawt Al Arab became his personal platform for sending any message he saw fit to a receptive Arab audience. He exercised tight control on the contents of Sawt Al Arab, through Ahmed Said – the director of Sawt Al Arab.

There is little dispute between academics on the nature of Sawt Al Arab as a propaganda campaign, in a first and final analysis. The truth was just an inconvenience for Sawt Al Arab. It was more concerned with carefully designed, well-staged messages with 4 main values: anti-imperialism, Arabism (Arab unity), leadership, and prestige. Anything and everything could be used as possible packaging for the messages; patriotic songs by Abdel Halim Hafiz and Um Kalthoum, commentaries, speeches, dramas, and of course blatant lies. The shockingly childish and venomous tone of Sawt Al Arab was very clear to any objective analyzer at the time. Similarly, Sawt Al Arab routinely attacked other Arab leaders in an attempt to twist their arms to conforming to Nasser’s wishes by unleashing public opinion of their own nationals against them. In fact, he had succeeded in bullying 3 Arab countries1 into not signing an agreement he didn’t want them to sign simply by unleashing violent propaganda campaigns against them.

Until one day, Sawt Al Arab went too far. In its Nixonian scandal, Sawt Al Arab led the Arab public to believe that they had won the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967 for nearly 4 days, when in reality they had been disseminated in less than a day. Instead of displaying the Arab street, Sawt Al Arab was betraying it. This led to the discrediting of Sawt Al Arab and its shameful descent from the throne. Just as he had miscalculated and overreached with his geopolitical goals, Nasser had miscalculated and overreached with his weapon of choice; Sawt Al Arab. And as history goes, Nasser was ultimately crushed by the impossibility of his own project.

By the 1960s, a new communication technology had entered Arab communities; Television. TVs arrived in Qatar in 1970 before the Sheikdom was formally created in 1971. By 1976, the Arab League launched the first Arab satellite; Arabsat. Arabsat sat idle for the most part, with most of its capacity completely untapped, with the exception of each Arab country’s national channels aimed at its own nationals. The Middle East Broadcasting company was launched in 1991 in London and was the first Television broadcasting experiment for engaging the entire Arab world.

Five years later, Al Jazeera was established by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Al Jazeera was the first journalistic experiment regionally aimed at a larger Arab audience and the first journalistic experiment internationally aimed at Middle Eastern issues. It first began by airing content for 6 hours on a daily basis. In the span of one year, Al Jazeera had expanded its coverage three times; from 8 hours a day to 12 hours a day and finally to 17 hours a day. By 1997, Al Jazeera impressively increased its coverage to 24/7.

Even though successful, Al Jazeera was just a news organization that can hardly be described as exciting by its Arab viewers. Until Western media outlets started airing exclusive Osama Bin Laden videos with Al Jazeera’s logo after the September 11 attacks in 2001. There started Al Jazeera’s long line of controversies. Viewed with suspicion over the possession of the video, Al Jazeera was challenged on its journalistic practices including its objectivity on issues of personal interest to its staff such as the language for covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its airing of crude images of victims of wars that was accused of being careless, its airing of Yusuf Al Qardawi – a religious preacher belonging to a known Islamist party, and its soft criticism of domestic Qatari issues. Al Jazeera defended its practices in brief statements and continued its mission of debating every taboo topic in Middle Eastern politics, provocatively.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s Emir was accused of using Al Jazeera as a tool for furthering his own geopolitical objectives in the region. The perceived threat of Al Jazeera was so grave that there were multiple incidents of Arab leaders taking diplomatic action against the Emir for his lack of willingness to control the contents of Al Jazeera’s coverage. When pressed by Arab leaders who demanded action against Al Jazeera, Al Thani firmly cited article 48 of the Qatari constitution that enshrines Al Jazeera’s autonomy and journalistic freedom. An article that doesn’t hold very well against critical reports of the young Emir himself, domestic issues within Qatar or Islamist parties. It was this selective applicability of article 48 of the Qatari constitution that deepened other Arab leaders’ mistrust of Al Jazeera and confirmed their fears of its use as a foreign policy weapon.

The context of the emergence of Emir Al Thani’s Qatar matters for understanding Al Jazeera. Qatar wasn’t born out of an anti-colonization liberation movement. Hence, a western-educated staff or western ideals of liberalism or journalistic freedom wasn’t perceived with the same level of mistrust by Al Thani as it would have been by Nasser. Similarly, Emir Al Thani’s objectives were economic liberalization and social development that would put Qatar on the global map. It wasn’t ideologies of any sort, nor a focus on competing for leadership of the Arab world – a claim that can be disputed.

Between both of these highly disruptive communication experiments of Nasser’s Sawt Al Arab and Al Thani’s Al Jazeera, there are similarities and stark differences, outlined below:

  • Both took advantage of the newest available technology to advance their message
  • Both spoke to a pan-Arab audience
  • Both were established directly by the country’s leader
  • Both were viewed by suspicion by other Arab leaders
  • Both ran on government funds
  • Both were considered novel
  • Both served as the main tool for advancing the goals of the country

 

Sawt Al Arab   Al Jazeera
  • An intentional tool
  • A byproduct of modernization
  • Had a Pan-Arabist ideology
  • Does not have a pan-Arabist ideology
  • A unifying force
  • A dividing force
  • Its operational records were destroyed minutes after Nasser’s death
  • Its operational records are published and open for public access
  • Controlled messages
  • Uncontrolled messages
  • Emerged during ideological rivalry
  • Emerged during economic rivalry
  • Emerged during colonial influence
  • Emerged with no colonial influence
  • The goal was regional leadership
  • The goal is international recognition

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