Al Jazeera: Its Beginnings in Qatar, Rise to Prominence in the Arab World, and Growing Influence in the West

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The late twentieth century phenomenon of globalization has been widely documented in the diverse fields of economics, politics, finance, cultural studies, and communications. Besides the "flattening" of the world and the accelerated exchange of ideas and information across borders, globalization also indicates the expansion of non-Western institutions and ideas throughout the new "global village." Al Jazeera, the brainchild of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ruling monarch of the tiny Arab state of Qatar, is a prime example of one such non-Western institution. The network took to the airwaves on November 1, 1996, and in its merely fifteen years of existence has profoundly changed the face of its host country, the Arab world, and the international media. Touted as the first example of successful free press in the contemporary Arab world, Al Jazeera took the Middle East by storm with its sensationalized news coverage, controversial programming, and driving mission of representing "the opinion and the other opinion." Five years after its first broadcast, the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States marked a fundamental turning point in the Al Jazeera's brief history, as all eyes turned to the Arab world, many for the first time. The unique positioning of Qatar and the ambitions of its emir account for Al Jazeera's development and rise to prominence in the Arab world, while the network's global reach is due, albeit indirectly, to the rise of radical Islam, the resulting interest in all things Arab, and the protracted conflict between the West, led by the United States, and the various state and non-state actors in the Middle East.

Theoretical Context

Al Jazeera became a source of academic and political study almost instantly, due to its revolutionary model in a region dominated by conservative, state-run media. While many analyses focus on the network's ideology as demonstrated through groundbreaking programming and the discussion of traditionally taboo subject matter such as government oppression and gender bias in Islamic law, this project aims to expose the "invisible forces" behind the rise of Al Jazeera both as a viable pan-Arab voice in the Middle East, and later as a global media network challenging the hegemony of Western voices led by the United States' CNN and Britain's BBC. Utilizing a diverse set of source material--ranging from the CIA World Factbook to a personal interview with an Al Jazeera English producer--this essay applies the media theories of mediology and cultural semiotics to its examination of Al Jazeera, its cultural context, and its various enabling milieux.


Mediology, a term coined by its founding and most famous theorist--Regis Debray--focuses on the analysis of how ideas become material forces, based on an examination of the existing, though largely invisible, political and social institutions upon which new ideas are based. This emerging theory is concerned with the intersection of media with politics, economics, and institutions. In contrast to most previous theories of communication, which focus on the individual at the expense of the institution, mediology is primarily concerned with the transmission of culture (the transfer of information through time) rather than communication (the transfer of information through space) (Irvine, "Why Mediology?").

The following quote from Debray's aptly titled "What is Mediology?" offers a useful illustration of the field's intellectual concerns:
"The study of the bicycle in itself does not have anything mediological about it, except when the existing relationship between the bicycle as an event and the advent of feminism is examined, or of the kinetic in art, or of democratic individualism, etc. The study of the idea of a nation becomes "mediological" when its connection to its networks is excavated--roads, railways, postal routes, telegraph lines, electricity" (32).

As the example of the bicycle demonstrates, mediology focuses primarily on relationships: between institutions, between social movements, and between networks. The remainder of this essay explores the relationship of Al Jazeera to the resources and needs of its host country and ruling monarch, its influence on the social culture of the Arab world and, increasing, the West, and the underground, global network of radical Islam that enabled its rise as a global player.

Cultural Semiotics and the Cultural Encyclopedia

Semiotics is the study of signs and meaning-making. Cultural semiotics focuses more specifically on the way that meanings in culture circulate in learned codes, rather than being inherent to the things or messages themselves. Thus, the same image--the Arabic logo of Al Jazeera, for example--can have a vastly different meaning from one individual to another, based on their socialization and the resulting associations of meaning each brings to its perception. According to theorist Yuri Lotman, culture is defined as the non-hereditary memory of a community, which is both man-made and transmitted rather than natural (213). Culture is never complete, but rather always changing, evolving, and redefining itself.

Furthermore, as Umberto Eco's notion of the "cultural encyclopedia" emphasized, the meaning of a cultural work can only be expressed in reference to another cultural work. In contrast to the prevailing notions of copyright and authorship, Eco argues that all cultural works are caught up in a web of references, and are in effect inseparable from previous cultural works: a phenomenon known as intertextuality, or more recently, intermediality.

The notion of the cultural encyclopedia is of crucial importance to explorations of globalization and its effects on identity and culture. Each culture carries its own set of learned codes, so that the same image might provoke anger in one population and jubilation in another. In order to understand how a network like Al Jazeera established itself as the premier voice of the Arab people, it is necessary to analyze how it interacts with, and emphasizes, the shared culture of its (primary) audience. In addition, nation-branding, a phenomenon exemplified by Al Jazeera's host country of Qatar in recent years, ties directly into this idea of meaning-making. Qatar has taken great pains to artfully craft its image, to imbue its national identity with a sense of power and prestige disproportionate to its size. Furthermore, because the cultural encyclopedia of the Arab World varies dramatically from that of the West, a semiotic analysis of the network helps to explain some of the interpretation gap between the two cultures, and what must be changed to bridge this divide.

Qatar: Micro-state with Global Ambition

Qatar is among the smallest countries in the Arab world both with regard to geographic reach and population. It shares its only border with the large and imposing state of Saudi Arabia, and is separated from Bahrain by a small strait in the Persian Gulf. The former British colony gained full independence in 1971, and is ruled by the al Thani family in an absolute monarchy. While the country's population is small--hovering somewhere around 1,700,000--it has more than doubled in size in the past decade, according to new census data. In addition, males outnumber females by a ratio of 3:1, and foreigners outnumber native Qataris by a ratio of almost 4:1 (Zayani and Sahraoui 78).

Despite its size, Qatar is a country of extraordinary wealth and resources. According to the 2011 CIA World Factbook, it has the second highest per-capita income of any country in the world at an estimated $145,300 (exceeded only by Liechtenstein), and has the world's lowest unemployment rate. The comfortable wealth of the country is due almost exclusively to its extensive oil and gas reserves: it ranks third in the world in the prevalence of these invaluable resources. However, between 75-80% of those living in Qatar are foreign nationals rather than Qatari citizens.

J.E. Peterson's article "Qatar and the World: Branding for a Micro-State," offers a fascinating look into the internal politics of Qatar, and sheds light on the phenomenon of Al Jazeera and the corresponding rise in prominence of its host country. As a so-called "micro-state," Qatar must find a way to counter its small size and lack of strong military power with cultural strength. As Peterson argues:

"The conclusion from these arguments seems to be that small states must adopt at least some of several complementary strategies for survival. First, they must be able to reach a modus vivendi with their neighbors, even at the cost of surrendering territory or other aspects of sovereignty, and to maintain correct arrangements despite all provocations (e.g. Kuwait and Iraq). Second, they generally require a powerful protector against larger neighbors. Third, they should exploit a unique niche whereby the small state provides a service or commodity that benefits neighbors, the region, or the broader world. In the first instance, this creates legitimacy. In the second, it demonstrates to outsiders that it is more valuable or useful as an independent entity than it would be if absorbed" (741).

Examined in conjunction with Qatar's need for strategic foreign policy and cultural diplomacy, the origins of Al Jazeera are less mysterious than they originally appear. Qatar is eager, and in fact, compelled, to form an identity distinct from Saudi Arabia, the "Big Brother" of the Middle East, for the sake of its continued legitimacy and survival as an independent state (Zayani and Sahraoui 139).

Building a Cultural Empire
The current emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, seized power from his father in 1995 in a bloodless coup, while the former leader was vacationing in Europe (Sharp 6). Like many in the new generation of Gulf leaders, Sheikh Hamad was educated in Britain, having graduated from Cambridge University and Military Academy (Sharp 6). His stated ambitions include the liberalization and democratization of his country, despite the almost absolute power and limitless wealth he and the other members of the royal family enjoy.

While the country has been criticized by many, including President Obama, for its lack of true democratic progress, the emir has taken substantial steps to liberalize the country since taking power from his father. In 1995, he abolished the Ministry of Information, responsible for the oversight and censorship of all Qatari and foreign media, in 2002 established diplomatic ties with the Holy See and designated land for Christian churches, and in 1999 held elections for a Central Municipal Council in which all adult Qatari citizens were permitted to vote (with the exception of the police and armed forces) (Sharp 8). This election marked the first time a Gulf country enabled all citizens, male and female, to vote in an nationwide election (Sharp 9). Furthermore, in 2003, Sheikha Yousef Al-Jiffri became the first elected female Qatari in the country's history, winning an appointment with the Education Ministry (Sharp 9).

Destination Doha

qatar_muesum_authority.jpgIn addition to an agenda of (debatable) democratization, the Qatari emir has used the country's ample economic resources to build a cultural empire and cast Qatar as the leader of the
qatar-2022-fifa-world-cup.jpg Middle East. Al Jazeera is undoubtedly the most visible and successful of these cultural efforts, but the emir's aggressive cultural diplomacy efforts promise to keep Doha in the spotlight even more in the coming years. In effect, the emir is treating his country as a product to be marketed and sold to the rest of the world. Much like the European Union, the ultimate example of state-branding, Qatar has launched a very high-profile image-building campaign designed to captivate the world and solidify the country as the cultural hot spot of the Middle East. In the words of Zayani and Sahraoui, "Al Jazeera is a showpiece of the Emire of Qatar and a symbol of his resolve to modernize his country under his 'institutional monarchy' " (70). While this statement holds much truth, Al Jazeera, it has become apparent, is only the beginning of the emir's ambitions.

The Doha Cultural Festival began in 2002, and has become an annual, month-long event each March that attracts thousands of tourists to the capital city for a celebration of Qatari culture. In addition, Qatar has played host to numerous sporting events, including the ExxonMobile Open tournament for tennis, and the Qatar Masters golf tournament each year, and will serve as the future host of the 2022 World Cup. Furthermore, Qatar has "very ambitious plans for the development of a number of world-class museums," an Arab equivalent of Washington's world-famous Smithsonian, the first two of which have opened in the last few years with tremendous pomp and circumstance (Peterson 747). The $300 million Museum of Islamic Art opened in 2008 followed by the Arab Museum of Modern Art in the closing days of 2010. The remodeled Qatar National Museum is slated for a 2014 opening. The video below provides a brief glimpse into the extravagance and beauty of this massive artistic project, showcasing the 2008 opening of the Museum of Islamic Art.

Liberal Arts and Sciences Building in Education City
Beyond the promotion of Qatari and Islamic culture via art, festivals, and sporting events, Qatar has drastically transformed global education with the opening of its groundbreaking Education City in the late 1990s. The higher education outpost on the outskirts of the capital city now houses satellite campuses of six major universities--Weill Cornell Medical School, Texas A&M, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Northwestern University--as well as University College London and numerous science and research organizations included the RAND-Qatar Policy Institute. The presence of these major academic forces has further increased the visibility of Qatar and amplified its international prestige. Though Doha is not yet an established household name, the surging Qatari capital city is staging its own cultural renaissance and drawing increasing global attention, prestige, and interest.

Foreign Diplomacy


Finally, Qatar has dramatically increased its involvement with transnational organizations, including the Gulf Cooperation Council, and has improved its foreign relations with neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Above all, the country has continued to build a strong relationship with the United States through the hosting of American military operations. In the aftermath of the First Gulf War, Qatar emerged as a strong American ally, partially replacing the roles previously exclusive to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (Zayani and Sahraoui 79). The relationship between Qatar and the United States is mutually beneficial: Qatar receives military and economic protection from potential hostile states, while America gains a much-needed pro-Western ally in the Middle East danger zone. However, relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia remain tense. Still, because Saudi Arabia remains a key ally of the United States, Qatar must tred carefully so as not to anger either its largest protector nor its closest antagonist (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 87). The country has enhanced its international legitimacy through its diplomatic efforts. Peterson sums up the national efforts well, arguing:

"Few countries seem to have taken the lessons and importance of branding to heart more thoroughly than Qatar has in recent years....Politically Qatar has adopted a high-profile independent stance within the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]. It has raised international awareness of the micro-state by hosting qatar_map_image.gif international conferences and enhancing its involvement with international organizations....With proper branding, Qatar becomes more than simply a place where oil or natural gas is produced, and Doha more than an anonymous city with modern buildings and shopping malls. The fundamental advantage, however, is that it assures the legitimacy of the micro-state. This in turn leads to the single most important factor: increased awareness of and legitimacy accruing to Qatar--in domestic and external terms--enhances the prospects of the state's survival" 746, 748).

The Origins of Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera has become Qatar's crown jewel, and "arguably the most important non-state actor in the Middle East today" (Zayani and Sahraoui 23). Though the Arab media scene has traditionally been dominated by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, Qatar has paved the way for a new media empire in the Middle East. A dramatically different alternative to the state-run media norm, Al Jazeera has brought a new voice to the Arab World, challenged and openly criticized its policies, and served as a catalyst for revolutionary change. The traditional function of the media in the Gulf countries has been conciliatory rather than inflammatory, designed to bolster the government and rally public support. Al Jazeera has no such intentions. In the words of Rami Khater, current producer of "The Stream" on Al Jazeera English and fellow CCT student at Georgetown, Al Jazeera is "like bizarro world" if you're used to state-run media in the Middle East (Khater, personal interview). While the lack of such an open network is a concept foreign to the liberalized West, the institutional framework grounded on freedom of speech and press is shaky at best, non-existent at worst, in the Arab World (Zayani 35).

Al Jazeera is the successor of the failed BBC Arabic Television experiment begun in 1994. The project, funded by the Saudi royal family, was short-lived due to a withdrawal of funding after the airing of an unflattering documentary about the royal family. Two years later, in 1996, the Qatari emir gave Al Jazeera an initial investment of $140 million, in the form of a "loan," to finance the first five years operating budget of the network. While the exact financial totals or current situation remain opaque, experts assert that the relationship between the monarch and the media giant persist. In the words of The Culture of Al Jazeera authors Zayani and Sahraoui, the emir "continues to generously bankroll Al Jazeera" (62). Thus, while the network is not government-owned, critics are suspicious of the level of involvement of the emir, especially given the noticeable lack of attention paid to local Qatari politics. Regardless, the rise and expansion of Al Jazeera are a huge part of the emir's global ambition for Qatar and its rise to international prominence: the networks's growth "is directly reflective of the emir's governmental plans" (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 74).

The question of the motives behind the emir's development and financial backing of Al Jazeera remain the subject of continued debate. However, the effects of his efforts remain clear: "the network helped to give Qatar prominence which is disproportionate to its size, military power, and economic strength" (Zayani 13). Al Jazeera is a mix of public and private, but its lack of bureaucratic red tape has undoubtedly assisted its ascension to prominence, now unquestionably the premier media source of the Arab World (Zayani and Sahraoui 137).


While the network would like to be profitable, and thus entirely separate from the Qatari monarch, it "insists that profitability should not be at the expense of the raison d'être, which means that the financial stakes of Al Jazeera cannot be discussed independently of its goals, which are in turn intertwined in the politics of its host country" (Zayani 16-17). The reality of the network stands in direct contrast to Western media, who have no choice but to be profitable and financially solvent. For CNN, Fox News, et al, strong viewership means large amounts of advertising revenue, and profitability is the ultimate goal. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, has explicitly chosen an ideological mission over economic success: a choice no Western media network has made because the option was never available. In addition, Zayani and Sahraoui assert that advertising in the Arab world is "driven by politics and not viewership figures...the trend for advertising in the Middle East is more towards buying around entertainment shows than around political, controversial, or news programs" (73). Al Jazeera, with its hard-line programming and tendency to anger Arab 800px-A_map_of_the_Arab_World_with_flags.png (bureau shutdowns have been a frequent phenomenon throughout the network's short history), does not rank high on the list of advertising targets; it remains too controversial for many potential clients.

Al Jazeera's aim is the promotion of pan-Arabism, the cultural unification of a region that has been plagued for thousands of years by division and infighting. However, as experts are quick to point out, "the international eminence of Al Jazeera has never been at the expense of its national identity" (Zayani 11). Much like the prestigious image Qatar has worked tirelessly to create in the realms of art, diplomacy, and culture, Al Jazeera showcases the country's modernizing tendencies and emergence as a power player in the Middle East, while simultaneously promoting the culture of the wider Arab world. The network devotes the majority of its coverage to Arab issues, as well as the issue of Arabness itself (Zayani 7).

The concept of a culturally unified Arab world recalls Benedict Anderson's acclaimed concept of "imagined communities" and the social construction of nationhood, which includes the global diaspora (Darwish 89). Beyond the Middle East, the imagined community of the Arab world contains millions of expatriates scattered around the globe. Al Jazeera has made a name for itself by trying to reach all of these individuals, providing them with news from the first high quality media network of the region. As scholar Philiip Seib notes in The Al Jazeera Effect, the network's "most important contribution so far may be its establishment of Arab media as a viable alternative to Western news organizations and its role in attracting global recognition of Arab media voices" (104). The emergence of Al Jazeera marked the first time in history that the majority of the Middle Eastern world could receive relatively objective news from their own perspective, rather than that of the West. Seib continues with the following excellent summation of the network's significance:

"In 1998, when the United States and Britain bombed Iraq because Saddam Hussein was blocking the work of weapons inspectors, Al Jazeera was there. In 2000, during the Palestinian intifada, Al Jazeera’s graphic coverage attracted a large audience throughout the Arab world. And in 2001, when the United States attacked Afghanistan, the Taliban allowed Al Jazeera to remain after Western journalists were ordered to leave....For the first time, many Arabs did not have to rely on the BBC, CNN, or other outside news sources when a big story broke” (143).

All the World's a Stage

While Al Jazeera's rise to prominence in the Arab world can be explained by its promotion of pan-Arabism and appeal to the wider Middle East, its rise as a global power has been more complex and controversial. While Al Jazeera does not support radical Islam (though many critics have argued just the opposite), its recognition as a global brand is intimately connected to those sinister forces. The events of September 11, 2011 fundamentally altered Western culture not only because of the new faceless enemy of Islamic terrorism, but, more crucially for Al Jazeera, also because of the enormous interest in all things Middle Eastern--a region of the world virtually ignored by the United States except for the continued issue of Iraqi weapons and the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rami Khater summarized Al Jazeera's expanded global impact nicely, noting that the past decade is "the first that there has been a flow of information from East to West in, what, five hundred years?" (Khater, personal interview).

The Post-9/11 World

"he [bin Laden] is as much a selling point for Al-Jazeera and its host country, Qatar, as the Gulf War was for CNN and the United States. The truth is that although Al-Jazeera has filled headlines in the Arab world since its inception in 1996, the events of September 11 and the network's exclusive access to bin Laden created a formula that made Al-Jazeera a household name" (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 174).

bin_laden_artwork.jpgIn the wake of the most widely anticipated death in recent memory, Time recently published an article detailing the influence of Osama bin Laden on American culture in the twenty-first century. The influence of this demonic figure has catapulted the Arab world into prominence in the West in a profoundly new way. As Kennicott argues:

"He [bin Laden] became the hidden impresario of cultural life. Almost overnight, our movie villains changed complexion. The old exotica of Orientalism, operas about villainous Turks or magnanimous sultans, ballets about renegade pirates, were suddenly relevant in a way they hadn't been for centuries. He reanimated the age-old bugaboos of history. Some changes were quantifiable. Between 1998 and 2009, according to the Modern Language Association, the number of college students studying Arabic rose more than 500 percent. According to the MLA's executive director, Rosemary Feal, the events of 9/11 didn't just increase enrollments in Arabic, but in languages such as biblical Hebrew and ancient Greek. There was a need to get back to the basic texts that underlie what some were calling the 'class of civilizations.' Americans were having another Sputnik moment, jolted out of hereditary complacency into a muscular need to know" ("One-man show").

Kennicott's article aptly draws parallels between the Cold War effect on Russian and Eastern European studies, and the effect of bin Laden and the subsequent protracted conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq on studies of Arabic, the Middle East, and Islam. Al Jazeera was one such beneficiary of this renewed (or perhaps more accurately, brand new) fascination with this region of the world.

Al Jazeera's exclusive access to a series of events beginning with the "bin Laden tapes" and including periods of time within both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars gained the network global recognition and infamy. As Zayani notes, "the September 11 events were a turning point in the history of the network....With its logo aired everywhere in the world, it catapulted to international prominence to become a super-station. The broadcasting of the bin Laden videotapes and the airing of graphic images made Al Jazeera part of the news it covered" (21). As this quote illustrates, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Qatari network became a news-worthy item itself. In addition, because Al Jazeera was privy to invaluable information that every other media network craved, it struck partnerships and rights agreements with the major Western networks (Zayani and Sahraoui 31). In only a few days following the attacks on the United States, CNN and Al Jazeera reached a deal giving the American network exclusive six-hour rights to Al Jazeera footage (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 163). For the first time in history, the Arab media was beating its Western counterparts at their own game.

Another date during the fall of 2001--October 7--marked a turning point for Al Jazeera on the world stage. In addition to being the first day of bombings on Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, this was the date of the airing of the first bin Laden tape, a timing choice that opened Al Jazeera to heavy criticism throughout the West, most notably from numerous senior members of the Bush administration. For the majority of the Western world, this was the date where they first heard the name Al Jazeera and saw its logo broadcast on their TV screen during CNN's coverage of the unfolding operation in Afghanistan. Both inflamed by the network's decision to air the tape and cognizant of the enormous amount of influence of Al al_hurra.png throughout the Arab world, the West began its appeals to the media newcomer. Tony Blair was the first major Western political figure to request and complete an interview with Al Jazeera, but he was quickly followed by Colin Powell and Condaleeza Rice. The West began to speak of the need to win "the information war," and reaching out to Arab audiences via Al Jazeera was seen as the most effective means to accomplish this goal.

Another indication of the network's growing power, and the fears of the West about losing its media hegemony, was the the Bush administration's 2004 launch a rival Arabic news network, Al Hurra (literally "The Free One" in Arabic). The network's mission, as stated explicitly on their website is "to provide objective, accurate, and relevant news and information to the people of the Middle East about the region, the world, and the United States. Alhurra supports democratic values by expanding the spectrum of ideas, opinions, and perspectives available in the region's media" ( Though the American network continues to broadcast throughout the Arab world, it attracts a negligible number of viewers compared to Al Jazeera and its closest rival, Dubai's Al Arabiya.

Furthermore, some telling data regarding Al Jazeera's Web presence illustrate the network's rapid rise to international fame. The network's official website launched in 1998, and received fewer than one million daily views prior to 9/11. In mere weeks after the al Qaeda attacks, this number jumped to over seven million according to the chief editor of the site, Abdulaziz Almahmoud (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 163).

Al Jazeera English

Following its rise to global recognition through 9/11 and its aftermath, Al Jazeera launched an English offshoot of the network on its tenth anniversary. Al Jazeera English (AJE) remains very recent phenomenon, but as the Middle East becomes an ever-larger center of international news, its role and prestige will likely follow suit. Interestingly enough, the Arabic and English versions of the organization are dramatically different, demonstrating the efforts of the network to at least partially conform to the cultural background of its audience. The two networks, far from being a unified voice, are almost entirely separate entities. As Rami Khater notes: "it could be two completely different takes on a subject" (Khater, personal interview). However, this fact is lost on many Westerners, who still see Al Jazeera as a fundamentally Arab network with an Arab point of view.

Established in 2006, the network has spread to more than one hundred countries, and reached close to two hundred fifty million households (Youmans and Brown). However, AJE has faced significant barriers to expansion in the United States, including condemnation by various conservative political figures and a severely limited geographic reach: as of early 2011 only Washington, DC, Toledo, OH, and Burlington, VT had full access to AJE programming, the equivalent of a mere 1.7% of the American public (Youmans and Brown). In addition, in a fascinating survey completed by two doctoral candidates at the University of Michigan, the surveyors noted a significant bias against Al Jazeera's coverage when displayed with its logo, even though the same footage with a CNN logo generated a more positive response (Youmans and Brown).

While the Arabic logo and Middle Eastern point of view are the very reason for Al Jazeera's success in the Arab world, these same features often allow the network to fall into the realm of cultural stereotype and misunderstanding outside of the Middle East. As Darwish argues in Social Semiotics of Arabic Television: "the logo comes with historical, cultural, social and political baggage; and for Al Jazeera to break the psychological barrier that probably exists among viewers outside its Arab constituency, it will need to start with the logo" (148). Will Al Jazeera break with its Arab roots to become a truly global media force, at least by Western standards? It doesn't look likely. More probably, as Western audiences become more familiar with Arab culture through positive social movements like the revolutions of the "Arab Spring" rather than haunting forces of al Qaeda, the negative connotations will lessen.

The protests of the so-called "Arab Spring" hold great promise for the expansion of Al Jazeera English, as the network became a primary news source for Americans over the first few months of 2011. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's now famous exultation of the network as "real news" is certainly a far cry from the Bush administration's condemnation of Al Jazeera as a nothing more than rabble-rousing propaganda. Recent events throughout the Middle East have even caused a shift in the perception of the network from anti-American to pro-democracy, exactly the sort of public opinion shift crucial to Al Jazeera's further expansion (Hagey and Tau).

In order to further these public opinion gains and continue to combat the negative image of Al Jazeera in much of the Western world, Al Jazeera launched the "I Want AJE" campaign. The movement is an aggressive PR campaign aimed at showcasing the high journalism quality and international voice of the network (exhibited in the two videos displayed above). The network also addresses head-on many of the criticism and inaccuracies of its perception outside of the Middle East.


"At the heart of Al Jazeera is a hybridity which paradoxically constitutes its cultural specificity; it is a mixture of the Eastern and Western, the leftist and rightist, the religious and the secular, the tribal and the urban, and the local and the global" (Zayani 30).

Al Jazeera simultaneously made the tiny nation of Qatar a player on the world stage and served as a unifying voice for the disparate Arab world and diaspora. Through the generous funding of the Qatari emir and his ambition to build a cultural empire in the Middle East, Al Jazeera quickly became the preeminent news source for countries throughout the Arab world, a unique phenomenon in a region dominated by government-controlled media. In the past decade, following the huge cultural and political shift caused by the events of September 11, 2001, Al Jazeera has taken its expansion even further, selling itself as the voice of the voiceless able to compete with the dominant Western networks of the international scene.

While the network has made great strides with the launch of Al Jazeera English, it continues to suffer from a branding problem. The Western view of the Arab world remains marred by images of fanaticism, fundamentalism, and cultural stereotypes. The network's airing of the bin Laden tapes and the large amount of airtime given to individuals deemed pro-Islamic and anti-American caused much of the American public to view Al Jazeera as a mouthpiece for terrorism, rather than a shining example of free press in region of political lock-down. The recent, pro-democratic revolts throughout the Muslim world have begun to change this negative view of the network, but Al Jazeera needs to better market itself to a non-Arab audience, an audience with Western ideals. As the brief life of Al Jazeera has demonstrated, the clash of civilizations, in many ways, remains alive and well. One of the biggest challenges of globalization is finding a way to combat this clash, while preserving the unique identity of each region.

Web Sources and Links

N.B.: All images are hyperlinked to their original source.

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Erin Coleman (
Communication, Culture, and Technology Program, Georgetown University