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Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

The world would be a vastly better place if more monarchs were like Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar. Since ousting his father in 1995 in a bloodless coup, al-Thani has worked tirelessly to eliminate his own control over what’s said, published, or broadcast in his small country. In the process he’s helping to redraw the media landscape of the entire Middle East.

Not long after assuming power, Al-Thani abolished the Qatari Ministry of Information, making Qatar the first Arab government to function without a censorship bureau. Then, when the government of Saudi Arabia cut its ties with a new satellite channel that published a critical report on the kingdom, Al-Thani invited the channel’s employees to move to Qatar. He gave the new station $140 million to get started, and Al Jazeera was born.

Al-Thani’s commitment to a free press has caused one headache after another for the monarchs and presidents-for-life in the Arab world. At one point, the government of Algeria cut power to several cities in order to prevent its people from seeing an Al Jazeera program on the Algerian civil war. Qatari diplomats are regularly deluged by official complaints from other Arab governments regarding Al Jazeera’s muckraking and taboo-breaking, and several Arab countries including Morocco, Libya, and Saudi Arabia have recalled their ambassadors from Qatar in response to critical programs run by Al Jazeera. Even when the channel broadcast criticism of state subsidies paid to Al-Thani’s own family, he agreed to continue funding Al Jazeera until they become profitable. More recently, the United States government has repeatedly requested that the emir “rein in” Al Jazeera. Al Thani’s reply, as always, was that nothing is going to hamper Al Jazeera’s right to free speech.

Despite the establishment of a Majlis al-Shura, or Muslim consultative body, Qatar is still a monarchy subject to Al-Thani’s whims—an arrangement he has not shown any particular interest in ending. But his career as a Gulf state monarch would have been vastly simpler and more comfortable had he never engaged in the revolutionary campaign of media liberalization that has marked his decade-long reign in Qatar. In a region where free speech remains an exotic luxury, Al Jazeera allows the residents of every Arab country access to debate on sensitive political topics. If the “new Middle East” of Arab reformers’ imaginations ever arrives, Al Jazeera—and Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani—will have played a major part in producing the cultural and political ferment that made it possible.

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