Doha is not the kind of city where you'd expect to find the world's most controversial news network. The capital of Qatar is flat and dry and in the middle of nowhere—or at least it was until Al Jazeera came along. Before the all-Arabic channel was established here in 1996, even people in the Middle East would have been hard-pressed to locate the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar (pronounced KAH-ter) on a map.
In a region where news broadcasts are usually state-run, Al Jazeera prides itself on being fiercely outspoken. Lauded as the Arab world's CNN, since September 11 it has become something of a household name in America.
So how did a conventional city like Doha, population 740,000, where gender separation is the norm and men and women wear traditional dress, spawn such a maverick organization?It comes down, as it often does in this part of the world, to one man: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the visionary emir of Qatar since 1995, when he ousted his father in a bloodless coup. Sheikh Hamad abolished censorship and called for a new constitution and a fully elected parliament. He held the country's first elections, for 29 municipal seats; women were not only allowed to vote but were encouraged to run. And with $150 million and a cache of editors and reporters hired away from the BBC, he jump-started Al Jazeera.
Almost every Arab country has at some point objected to Al Jazeera's reports (sometimes by closing the station's local bureau) on subjects deemed taboo—police torture, polygamy, Islam's relationship to democracy. Both American and British officials have decried its coverage of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda as inflammatory and propagandist. The emir is unmoved. "We are giving the world two sides of the coin," he has said. "This is what a television channel should be all about."
Doha currently has little to offer the young men and women who come from various parts of the Arab world to work at Al Jazeera—only a handful of bars (all located within hotels and mostly patronized by men) and a few cineplexes. "There's nothing to do in Doha," says one producer. "It's an outpost." But that may be changing as the Qatari government tries to position itself as a global player. The World Trade Organization held a conference here in October, and Qatar has hosted three professional golf tournaments as well as major men's and women's tennis opens. The country beat out Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia in the bid for the 2006 Asian Games, pledging to build a $700 million sports complex.
Now the emirate wants to lure international leisure travelers to its beaches, shopping centers, and cultural sites (I. M. Pei has been tapped to design a new Islamic museum). "Twenty years ago, the Gulf was too conservative for tourism," says Sultan bin Jassim al-Thani, chairman of the General Tourism Corporation and a member of the royal family. "But now we know that we can benefit a lot from it."
Actually, as home to the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world, Qatar is the last place on earth that needs tourism revenue right now. But, as other Arab states such as Dubai and Jordan have shown, tourism attracts investors and helps diversify the economy. Two major luxury hotels have opened in Doha in the past 18 months: a Ritz-Carlton located on two private islands with a marina, water park, and beaches; and an Inter-Continental that is popular with visiting heads of state. The government relaxed its drinking laws last year, allowing airport vendors to sell alcohol and hotels to stock mini-bars with liquor. "There are certain elements you must have," says Tariq al Jaidah, director of tourism and marketing for Qatar National Hotels, which owns the Ritz and other properties. "People want to have a drink and wear a bikini."
For now, few Qataris are concerned about integration with other societies. "My children are exposed to European and American culture on a daily basis," says Sultan. "They surf the Internet, they read Western magazines, they watch American shows. We've been living with expats for a long time."
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera continues with its expansion plans: a London-based documentary channel; a program on women's issues; and, perhaps, an English version of its Web site. "The global village is too strong for anyone to stop," Tariq says. "A big tide of change is sweeping the world, and here in Qatar we are sitting on top of the wave."
Nana Asfour has written about the Middle East for the New York Times, Brill's Content, and Artnews.