QATAR — On a recent visit to Qatar, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wanted to satisfy his curiosity about something bothering him and most other Arab rulers. It was past midnight when he descended unannounced on the Jazeera TV station. His surprise was hardly less than that of staff still around at such an hour, and, turning reproachfully to Safwat Sharif, boss of Egypt’s vast broadcasting empire, he was heard to exclaim: “All this trouble — and from a matchbox like this.”

Jazeera’s 300 employees are crammed into little more than a glorified Nissen hut. Yet nothing in recent times has more thrilled Arabs, or exasperated their leaders, than the commodity — uncensored news and the freest commentary they have ever heard before — produced by this cubicle in the desert.

Five years ago, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father in a bloodless palace coup. It hardly electrified a watching world; with a native population of some 100,000, Qatar was, after all, the tiniest Arab country, and Doha is perhaps the dullest capital on earth. But the 43-year-old leader quickly enlivened things with “democratization” from on high — and the establishment of a satellite TV network.

Nothing new about that in the Tower of Babel that is the Arab world today. Along with the vast, and overwhelmingly vacuous, superfluity of domestic media that they already control or manipulate, every government must now have a pan-Arab outlet of its own. Saudi Arabia dominates the new communications order with networks like the London-based MBC, or Rome-based Orbit and ART; even Ajman, minutest of the UAE’s seven city-states, entered the fray.

Yet while it has become “open skies” in the Arab world, what is purveyed has changed little. Every newscast is dominated by fawning accounts of the activities of every president, monarch or emir.

Some have more scope than others to tackle serious issues, but nowhere do they compare with what democratic societies take for granted. They rely heavily on the crasser forms of entertainment, endless Egyptian soap operas, dubbed foreign movies, quiz, game and chat shows, song, dance and sexual titillation. It all seems designed to keep the Arab mind off politics.

And even though the Arab “family” is notorious for its interstate feuds, on the media front, all, by and large, stick to the Charter of Arab Honor, a 1965 Arab League ordinance chiefly designed to shut up the then notoriously venal, but obstreperous, Lebanese press.

Entirely new, indeed revolutionary, was the ruler’s decision that the station, though initially government-financed, would be independent.

“We’ve no army or tanks,” said Abdul Aziz Tamimi, a young Qatari archivist, “only Jazeera.” But it’s been enough for this disregarded backwater to conquer the whole Arab world — with the word, not the sword. No one contributed more to this David’s triumph than the media Goliath and Persian Gulf big brother, Saudi Arabia itself. Through its Orbit channel, it had financed the recently established BBC Arabic service; when, in 1996, the BBC insisted on screening a Panorama program about the kingdom, it terminated the deal. Twenty experienced, now jobless, BBC Arabic staffers were drawn to Qatar by the good salaries — and the promise of freedom.

It has been a promise far better kept than most seriously expected. Around them arose a team encompassing just about every Arab country. It now broadcasts round the clock, with news bulletins on the hour. It has 32 foreign correspondents, and is rapidly acquiring more. It has identified a market craving for rigor and seriousness; it is austerely, almost exclusively political; no entertainment, no dumbing down here.

With this formula it has buried all rivals. A recent poll shows that its closest one, though way behind, is Saudi Arabia’s MBC, followed, bizarrely, by the London-based ANN, which belongs to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s dissident brother Rifaat. No one else comes anywhere near.

Arabs who formerly turned to CNN now have the Arabic equivalent, covering their affairs with a grasp and depth, passion and intimacy, that no foreign organization could ever match. Audiences expand in leaps and bounds.

“We are usually first with the news,” said Salih Nagm, chief editor, “and almost always first with getting significant players to comment or on it.” A world-beating success was Jazeera’s coverage of the Anglo-American bombing of Baghdad in December 1998.

But the real hit has been its current affairs programs. Many are phone-in talk shows. But, unlike other Arab stations, Jazeera does them live, and without any delaying mechanism for screening out embarrassing questions.

In the most famous of them, “Opposite Direction,” a sort of Arab “Crossfire,” Faisal Qasim, a drama graduate from Hull University, hosts two protagonists of contrary opinions. Never before have the region’s myriad political oppositions had such a high-profile platform. Little — not even questions about a regime’s fundamental legitimacy — is off-limits.

Once a speaker made cruel sport with the long and no-longer-secret history of Zionist-Hashemite collaboration. “It’s not just what may be fact or otherwise,” said former BBC staffer Ahmad Sheikh, “it’s the spectacle of debate in a region starved of it.”

In this era of religious revivalism, Islam itself does not go unscathed. In one famous dogfight, about polygamy, the Jordanian feminist Tujan Faisal so enraged the Egyptian writer Safinaz Kazem, a Marxist-turned-Islamist, that she stormed out in mid-program. So did former Algerian premier and secularist Reda Malek under assault from an Islamist opponent. For the first time in his career, the Syrian thinker, Sadiq Azm, once condemned as an “apostate,” found a TV platform, and used it to confront one of the Arab world’s most eminent clerics, Yusif Qaradawi, and mocked him as the upholder of a “backward” religion.

Unknown in the outside world, Qasim has become as well-known within it as many an Arab leader. He is apt to be mobbed wherever he goes. Cities can grow noticeably quieter when he is about to go on air. That happened in his native Syria when, recently, he got two protagonists to debate whether Assad was “abandoning the Palestinian cause” and other principles he once made his own.

Jazeera can hardly be compared, in style or content, to Cairo’s Voice of the Arabs, the most potent of propaganda instruments during Nasser’s heyday, but some regard it as its closest successor. It was probably its provocative reporting of the Anglo-American bombing of Baghdad that prompted Syrian students to invade the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, and instilled in the Syrian regime the wisdom to let them do it. Pro-Western Arab leaders were reportedly moved to telephone U.S. President Bill Clinton and warn him that if this went on the Arab “street” might rise.

That is probably why the most universally reviled of Arab rulers, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, is about the only one to take Jazeera’s attacks on the chin. He presumably reckons that he has more to gain from sympathetic reporting on his people’s plight than he loses from outrages against his person.

Other rulers habitually remonstrate with their Qatari colleague and none is more assiduous than President Zine al-Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia. The Qatari foreign ministry has received some 400 official complaints. Syria insinuates that Jazeera works for Israel. For Kuwait, it is an Iraqi tool. The Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif called it “excellent and accurate, but — as an offspring of the BBC — it serves up poison on a golden platter.”

The Algerian government once a arranged power blackout during a sensitive program. Jordan and Kuwait shut down Jazeera’s local bureaus. “Saudi Arabia won’t even let us cover the Haj,” said a staffer, “though CNN can.” And it pressures Saudi advertisers, the best-paying in the region, not to do business with it. The Arab League has denied it admission to the Pact of Arab Honor.

It’s not just governments. After the “insults” to Islam, clerics fulminate for weeks from pulpits around the region. So do newspapers, even so-called opposition ones, especially in countries like Egypt, Jordan or Algeria, where the press enjoys relative freedom. Qasim has collected thousands of articles, overwhelmingly hostile, about himself. His brother, a well-known singer, lives and works in Egypt; the leading Cairo weekly Akhbar al-Yaum campaigned to have him deported. A Jordanian columnist said: “This man’s tongue should be cut out.”

One country whose people probably loathe Jazeera as much as its government is Saddam-obsessed Kuwait. But, like officials everywhere, they watch it obsessively, nonetheless, In Saudi Arabia, a Qatari lady went to an exchange dealer; “This is Faisal Qasim’s money,” he snorted, “change it somewhere else.”

So far Qatar has stood firm against the Arab onslaught. The ruler, an official said, “doesn’t like being pushed around.” The foreign ministry refers all complaints to Jazeera itself. “And we,” said managing director Muhammad Jasim, “tell them that if you think we have said something wrong, you always have the right of reply.’

In fact, there clearly is a ceiling on how far Jazeera dare go in provoking Arab governments, especially Saudi Arabia, which has historically been domineering and subversive in its dealings with its tiny neighbor.

That was evident last month. Jazeera was the only Arab network to cover the latest Amnesty International report on Saudi Arabia; but it did not follow it up on its current-affairs programs. However, its ceiling remains consistently higher than any of its rivals, who react in two ways. One is to offer more spice and trivialization. But that doesn’t seem to help much, and, if anything, it only makes the hypocrisy which, to many Arabs, is embedded in the Saudi practice of Islam, appear more schizoid than it already is.

To cut its huge costs, the London-based MBC is thinking of moving to one of the “media-free zones” that Egypt, Jordan and Dubai are now competing to offer offshore networks. But why not go to Saudi Arabia itself? “Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed a moderate Islamist recently arrived from Britain, “if the Saudi Ulema (religious scholars) saw on a local channel the half-naked women already seen on a Saudi satellite channel like Orbit they would go berserk. So long as the soft-porn comes from beyond the borders, official appearances are preserved.”

The other reaction is to copy. Talk shows with names like “Encounter” and “Frankly Speaking” are springing up all over the place. “They even imitate the shape of my table,” said Qasim, “but they’ve a long way to go before they match the content.”

Still, thanks to Jazeera, it is progress. “The dirt in our society,” Qasim said, “has been swept under the carpet for too long. But this won’t be the case much longer. Someday, a free Arab press may help create real democracy in the Arab world.”

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