My Two Cents

This month I’d like to refrain from being critical (“grumpy” as my 13-year old daughter would say). Instead I’ll talk about a 50-year-old lady who single-handedly improved the social life of the Middle Eastern country, Qatar, and in the process became a point of reference for the whole region. To the industry, this country on the Gulf peninsula is known for launching Al-Jazeera, the Arabic all-news international TV network (now also available in English). In Arabic, Al Jazeera means “the peninsula,” a reference to Qatar.

This remarkable lady is Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, the second of three wives of the 57-year old Sheihk Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir (prince) of Qatar (the other Emir’s wives are his cousins, reportedly married for political reasons).

In 1995, Sheikha Mozah persuaded the Emir to fund her pet project: The Qatar Foundation for Education. This Foundation, which she chairs, launched Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, an all-Arabic language TV service for children between the ages of three and 15, in 2005, after a gestational period of three years.

In order to avoid confusion with the older (founded in 1996), larger and more popular Al-Jazeera news service, the children’s channel is often referred to as JCC. Officials at JCC are also quick to point out that there is no link between the two channels, since the news service is funded and operated by another foundation, directly under the auspices of Sheikh Hamad.

Currently, JCC covers 22 Arab countries on all platforms (cable, satellite, DTV and IPTV) and is carried on a non-exclusive basis in parts of Europe as well. The channel has no advertising and is billed as a “public mission.” JCC produces 40 percent of its own programs and broadcasts 18.5 hours a day on weekdays and 19 hours on weekends. In addition, it has regional offices in Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, Rabat and Paris.

With her Foundation and JCC, Sheikha Mozah has increased the education level of the young people in Qatar, especially among women who in the past were not allowed to participate in any social activities or services for the country. She’s so revered in Qatar that the residents refer to her as “the first lady.”

For her dedication to education, Sheikha Mozah has become the symbol of innovation and progress for the whole region. She has received many awards and honorary doctorates from several U.S. and U.K. universities and is UNESCO’s special envoy for basic and high education.

Unlike many other monarchial wives in the Middle East, Sheikha Mozah has been a high-profile figure in Qatar’s politics and international relations. In 2003, CBS’ 60 Minutes dedicated a full segment to her and the Emir. In 2007, Forbes named her one of the world’s 100 most powerful women.

However, despite all her good intentions and drive, Sheikha Mozah could not have fulfilled her plans without the full support of Sheik Hamad. He’s the Emir who abolished his country’s Ministry of Information, which is still a source of censorship in Saudi Arabia and most other Arab nations. He pledged to let Al-Jazeera “report the news as they see it.” In a 1997 speech, the Emir said, “I believe criticism can be a good thing, and some discomfort for government officials is a small price to pay for this new freedom.”

The Emir rose to his position in 1995 after deposing his father, who was vacationing in Switzerland, in a bloodless coup. He married Sheikha Mozah in 1977 while she was attending Qatar University (from which she graduated in 1986 with a BA in Sociology). Of her background we know very little, apart from the fact that her father, Nasser Abdullah Al-Missned once lived in Al-Khor (north of Doha), where she was born. Nasser, who died in 2007, has been described as an “Arab nationalist” and a “modernizer.” These elements are now found in his daughter’s quest to develop a modern Arab-cultured and pan-Arab scientific and information infrastructure.

These aspects are not lost on JCC management, as shown by the channel’s executive general manager Mahmoud Bouneb’s conference at Mip-Junior, where he outlined the non-ideological nature of JCC and the channel’s educational and entertaining values, which impressed participants such as Orlando Corradi of Italy’s Mondo TV, who promptly suggested a co-production.

In conclusion, we can state that Qatar and its two television services have to be recognized by the international community as a driving force for progress and dialog both within the Arab world and with the West, which, too often, has been nearsighted in its criticism of Al-Jazeera, despite its independence and balanced reporting recognized by those who are not themselves politically radical fundamentalists, such as Fox News reporters and commentators.

Dom Serafini