Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 48-49

Islam and the Near East in the Far East

Al Jazeera International’s Asian Coverage To Be Based in Kuala Lumpur

By John Gee

Chinese President Hu Jintao (l) is accompanied by Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Nuaimi (c) during an April 23 tour of the headquarters of state oil conglomerate Saudi Aramco in the eastern oil hub of Dhahran (AFP Photo/Fahd Shadeed).

AL JAZEERA, the Arabic-language, Qatar-based television news station, has launched an English-language counterpart, known as Al Jazeera International (AJI). While the new station is intended to offer alternative perspectives to those of the existing major international news broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC, spokespeople have been at pains to insist that it will not be offering an English-language version of the Arabic service. With a 200-member-strong news team, it will be producing its own reports and programs.

What it does intend to take from the Arabic service is the latter’s approach to the news. AJI means to give a hearing to strongly opposing views and to seek out interpretations of events that differ from the prevailing mainstream ones. In AJI’s opinion, the dominant international broadcasters have been too ready to view the rest of the world from a standpoint based upon their home countries’ prevailing political thinking, thus skewering their coverage. For example, Africa generally features as the site of civil wars and premature death from violence, AIDS or starvation, while the Middle East is largely viewed as a place of violence and intolerance. U.S. stations, in particular, tend to view developments in the countries of that region in the light of what impact they might have upon Israel, rather than seeing them chiefly in terms of the societies concerned. The fact that those who live in these places have interests and priorities that may be very different from those of Western policymakers can make them seem unnewsworthy in the eyes of Western news broadcasters, and so they do not receive very much attention. The new station will try to bear this in mind in its own presentations.

AJI will broadcast from Doha, Qatar’s capital, and from regional bases in Washington, London and Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. The Kuala Lumpur studios are in the Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest building.

The possibility of Al Jazeera having a presence in Malaysia has been mooted for some time. Bernama, the Malaysian news agency, reported in 2002 that Al Jazeera was planning to establish a Kuala Lumpur office (see June-July 2002 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 36), but at the time it seemed that what was under consideration was little more than a regional office of the Arabic-language service. It turns out that the AJI presence is part of a more ambitious undertaking. Kuala Lumpur, with its reliable communications and large number of English speakers, will be the base for reporting from Asia (excluding the Middle East).

While AJI appears confident that the Malaysian government will not intervene to influence its news coverage, if it remains true to the example of its Arabic language counterpart it may well strain the government’s patience. How will it report on issues such as the treatment of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia, many of whom work long hours for a pittance and some of whom are treated cruelly by their employers? Will it be able to offer balanced coverage of Malaysia’s next general election without being accused of giving undue publicity to one party or another? Will the Malaysian government stand firm against pressures to shut down AJI’s studios if its reports anger some of its Asian neighbors—such as China or any of Malaysia’s partners in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)—just as the Qatari government has resisted pressure from the Bush administration and irate Arab governments? AJI’s presence in Kuala Lumpur could be a test for Malaysia as well as for the broadcaster.

AJI may well find a large viewership initially in Malaysia and Indonesia, where most Muslims are critical of the existing international news networks, particularly of U.S.-based networks’ coverage of Palestine and Iraq. It does not want to be identified as an Arab or Muslim station, however—instead it wants to be seen as independent and objective, and thus to appeal to a questioning international public, regardless of religion or nationality.

“Here [in Malaysia], as in the Middle East, Al-Jazeera is seen as a welcome alternative in regions which have been used to getting all their international news channels from the West,” AJI managing director Nigel Parsons told The New Straits Times April 3, “and I think we’re welcomed as a breath of fresh air.”

Saudi-Chinese Ties

Following his visit to Washington in April, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a three-day trip to Saudi Arabia. He is reported to have exchanged views on Palestine, Iraq, and the issue of the Iranian nuclear program with his hosts, but the main focus appears to have been upon business. The state-run oil companies of the two countries, Sinopec and Aramco, signed an agreement on cooperation in energy exploration during Hu’s visit. The two states also signed agreements on cooperation in health and youth affairs, as well as a defense systems contract. These accords complement those agreed upon in January this year, when King Abdullah visited Beijing.

That visit was the first by a Saudi king to China. When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was declared in 1949, Riyadh continued to recognize the Taiwan regime of Chiang Kai Shek as the legitimate government of China. Their ties were strong, based as they were on a shared antipathy to communism. They were the two main state supporters of the World Anti-Communist League, an international alliance that included extreme right-wing groups, and whose Asian section was largely preoccupied with Chinese communism.

This hostility was not mirrored by the PRC, although its policies toward some of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the Arabian peninsula tended to feed Saudi insecurities. In the 1950s, prior to the overthrow of the imam, China undertook several development projects in Yemen (notably the construction of the Sana’a-Hodeida highway), and it continued its involvement after the establishment of the republic, without becoming involved in Yemen’s internal conflicts. A faction of the National Liberation Front in South Yemen took a pro-China position until being defeated by the more Soviet-aligned elements. China was supportive of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf, which won control of most of Dhofar, Oman’s southernmost region, from 1968 to 1974.

Although China retreated from its support for revolutionary movements after the 1970s, it was only in 1990 that the two states established diplomatic relations. The Saudi government appreciates the fact that Beijing does not raise awkward questions about human rights and Saudi political and social policies; it also has a greater measure of agreement with China on the Palestine question than it does with the U.S.—but this does not mean that Saudi Arabia is in a hurry to diminish its traditionally close ties with Washington. It sees the value of stronger ties with a China that is playing a bigger role in international affairs and has become a major economic power. Saudi Arabia is now China’s largest foreign supplier of oil, providing 17 percent of its total imports last year. 

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: The Palestinians and Israel, available from the AET Book Club.

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