The network has raised political awareness across the Middle East. No wonder Qatars conservative enemies want it shut down
On Monday a bold and controversial experiment in Middle Eastern media and politics may be abruptly brought to an end. Al-Jazeera once heralded as the beacon of free Arab media that broke the hegemony of the western networks and reversed the flow of information from east to west for the first time since the middle ages faces closing its doors for good.
On 23 June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt subjected Qatar to unprecedented diplomatic and economic sanctions, followed by an aggressive blockade and threats of further action if Qatar fails to meet a list of 13 demands, one of which is to shut down the al-Jazeera network.
If Doha capitulates and there are no signs it will it will effectively have lost its sovereignty and become a vassal state of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Yet defying the deadline could lead to regime change in Qatar, or even war.
Whatever happens, it is a credit to al-Jazeera that, 21 years after its launch, it is still so disruptive and challenging to those in power. Few other media outlets can claim to be so influential. But al-Jazeera is not like other broadcasters. It is a unique phenomenon which, since it started broadcasting in 1996, has revolutionised the Arab media, and in 2010 played a major role in bringing about a real political revolution across much of the Arab world.
Before al-Jazeera started broadcasting, Arab television news was totalitarian drivel. The news chiefly focused on what the sheikh, emir or president was doing that day, some news about his heir, and a puff piece about how lucky the nation was to have such heroic father figures. Al-Jazeera blew all this away, allowing all kinds of previously banned voices to be heard, from the Israelis and Muammar Gaddafi to Chechen rebels, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
In its glory days, Arab cities would go noticeably quieter when Dr Faisal al-Qassems The Opposite Direction show came on air, and the networks long list of scoops includes its coverage of Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998, a post-9/11 interview with bin Laden, and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, when al-Jazeera was the only TV network present in the country and for a few weeks became news agency to the world.