As it abandons local newspaper, Qatar betrays broader media crisis

Qatari Al Arab surprised its readers by announcing it is suspending publication and laying off a large number of its employees due to financial difficulties in a country known for allocating a large budget to foreign media operations.

Thursday 09/07/2020
A file picture shows man reading a newspaper at the Qatar Exchange in Doha. (Reuters)
A file picture shows man reading a newspaper at the Qatar Exchange in Doha. (Reuters)

DOHA – A local newspaper, the Qatari Al Arab, surprised its readers by announcing it is suspending publication and laying off a large number of its employees due to financial difficulties in a country known for allocating a large budget to foreign media operations.

 The downsizing of the first Qatari daily, which was founded in 1972, sparked concern and confusion at home. 

The newspaper’s administration said the paper’s print edition would stop but that a restructuring process would take place, a statement observers felt was likely aimed at giving employees false hope that normal work would eventually resume. 

After announcing the decision, Jaber al-Harami, CEO of Dar Al Arab, joined publishing group Dar Al-Sharq, seemingly confirming that the fate of the local Qatari newspaper had been sealed. 

 Newspaper staff received official letters stating that their contracts would be cancelled as of Wednesday and asking them to reach out to the administration to receive letters of contract termination.

Observers questioned why Qatar, which sets out a large budget for international media outlets to further its agenda, was abandoning the national media organ. They also noted that Doha has done little to support local media amid the coronavirus crisis, sending a message that the sector is not a priority.

While local media is an important part of political and social developments, Qatar’s industry has been largely unsuccessful with the public due to its constant expressions of support for government policy and unreliable information.

While Qatar’s Al Jazeera targets international Arab audiences by preparing negative reports and hosting journalists who are critical of their own countries, the country does not allow its local media to refer to local problems or discuss officials’ performance, which has caused it to lose credibility and the public’s interest.

 Qatar’s disinterest in local news

Qatar’s abandonment of Al Arab ’s print edition indicates a decline in local marketing and advertising due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has compounded the country’s crises.

Doha was hit hard in June 2017 when four Arab countries —  Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain  — imposed severe isolation measures on it due to its alleged support of terrorism and ties with Iran. In addition to severing diplomatic relations with Doha, the boycotting quartet suspended flights to and from the country, barred Qatari aircraft from flying through their airspace and imposed a series of economic sanctions.

While Qatari media has run extensive biased coverage of the Gulf rift, they are now the first to pay the bill for that crisis. The Qatari regime believes that these media outlets’ influence is extremely limited and are looking to prioritise advancement of their foreign agendas, which means more money needs to be pumped into international media outlets and new, effective strategies should be devised. 

It is noteworthy that the cost of production, print and distribution of a newspaper is likely less than 20% of the outlet’s total costs, especially in a small country like Qatar. 

This means the problem with Qatar’s Al Arab is not only funding, and that Doha has effectively decided to abandon local media for foreign-focused media, in which the presence of Qatari nationals among the staff is quite small.

Qatar intends to use its foreign media operations to sabotage fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and advance Turkish and Iranian influence in the region. 

Qatari media watchers say Al Jazeera’s ability to advance foreign agendas has weakened the stakes of local media — both in terms of financing and recruitment. The Muslim Brotherhood and allied entities only view Qatari media as useful if it can effectively advance their interests.  

Shifting the Qatari Al Arab’s operation from print to online-only does not solve the paper’s crisis, nor the overall crisis of Qatari media. The issue will persist as long as officials continue to view the industry as a tool to advance the government’s foreign agendas rather than a medium to express local public opinion and concerns and defend the cohesion and social fabric of the Arab Gulf.