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The Women of Al Jazeera

I don’t have to dislike Saudi Arabia because it’s a despotic theocracy, one utterly lacking in respect for human rights or press freedom that publicly beheads some 150 “criminals” every year. No, I can dislike it for the threat it poses to my favourite TV news network, Al Jazeera English.

We’re now a month into the 2017 Gulf crisis. The latest bit of Middle Eastern nastiness, it began on June 5 with Saudi Arabia and its vassal state Bahrain joining Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in severing diplomatic relations with Qatar. Claiming shock, shock that their sister state was a supporter of “terrorism,” the sin-free quartet imposed a blockade that closed their land, air and sea borders with the peninsular nation.

Some 19 days later, the gang of four issued its list of non-negotiable demands, a  set of insults to Qatar’s sovereignty that includes the demand to shut down the Al Jazeera Media network. As someone who has come to respect the work of the Al Jazeera English news team — the practitioners of some of the best broadcast journalism currently available — that hit close to home.

In an attempt to understand the origins of the dispute, I read a lot of news commentaries. Most of them trace the Saudi-led action to the May 20 visit by Donald Trump to Riyadh. Curiously, the chief executive of the U.S., a country with a constitution that enshrines freedom of the press and religious practice, made his first overseas trip to a totalitarian state. There, he lavished praise upon hereditary tribal chieftains who respect neither of those principles.

(His next stop was Israel, America’s best buddy in the world, despite its establishment of an official religion and an apartheid governance system.)

In much the same way that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein understood that he had U.S. permission to invade Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious crown prince Mohammad bin Salman believes that he has Uncle Sam’s permission to bring the recalcitrant Qataris to heel. And, like the press-hating Trump, the 31-year-old prince really, really hates Al Jazeera, an organization that practices journalism rather than a proper state-supporting stenography.

Since its founding in 1996, the Arabic news organization has been a thorn in the side of the region’s ruling elites. In 2006, Al Jazeera English went on the air, becoming available in Canada in late 2009. Though not perfect, AJ’s English-language service is about as good as it gets in today’s international news environment.

Its proclaimed commitment — “giving voice to the voiceless” — played a role in the promotion of the Arab Spring, the source of no end of anxiety in the Middle Eastern palaces where “stability” depends on absolute rule.

That said, I personally think that what really bothers the crown prince are the women of Al Jazeera. The spawn of the misogynistic Saudi royal family, he represents the future of a medieval monarchy that adheres to the Wahhabist branch of Sunni Islam. His is a fundamentalist interpretation of the faith that’s roughly analogous to the Christianity practiced in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Clearly, he shares Donald Trump’s view of women as silent appendages to their male owners. Born to unearned wealth and dynastic privilege, Mohammad bin Salman can only view the TV network’s whip-smart female correspondents and presenters as a threat. I can imagine that the very sight of Inside Story discussion moderator Dareen Abughaida challenging a less-than-forthcoming interview subject causes this son of Saud to soil whatever it is he wears under his Klan robes.

And it’s not just Concordia University graduate Abughaida that challenges the androcentric nonsense that such primitives as the prince hold dear. Seeing Newshour anchors Richelle Carey, Jane Dutton or Folly Bah Thibault receiving reports from field reporters Jacky Rowland, Teresa Bo, Rosalind Jordan or Step Vaessen, well, that just flies in the face of everything bin Salman learned during his frat boy years at Riyadh’s King Saud University.

Alas, I also understand that life is not fair. Although Saddam did not get his way in Kuwait, the reactionary Saudis just might prevail in the Gulf. So far, Qatar has rejected all of their demands, but the House of Saud has powerful supporters, and much to fear from an informed public demanding a voice in their own affairs. The men and quite extraordinary women of Al Jazeera may yet be among the collateral damage.

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Michael Walsh is a retired newspaper film critic who is currently recycling and reconsidering his coverage of the popular culture at Reelingback.com.

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