Wadah Khanfar: ‘No one will be spared by the Arab Spring’

The Arab Spring “is not going to spare anyone” not even Saudi Arabia, warned the former head of the Al Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, last night.

“We are going to see people resisting change but it will be a major mistake that will cause a lot of problems if countries see the Arab Spring as a conspiracy,” said Khanfar, who for eight years held managed the TV network that has been credited with having contributed to the ferment that led to the uprisings that swept the region. “Any country that does not accept proper reform and serious constitutional reform will face difficulty.”

With the current perception that the Americans are withdrawing from the region, there are concerns about who will be responsible for protecting the status quo in the region. In this changing landscape, what happens in Syria remains very important, the Palestinian-born journalist told Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow:

“Syria is not like any other country, it is the cornerstone of a bloc in the region and therefore a lot of countries are worried about what is going to happen in the region when Bashar is out of power. This is why, in my opinion, the Arab world is reluctant about Syria.”

Syria is of particular concern to Iran, because if the revolution succeeds it will no longer be part of the alliance Iran is forming with Iraq and Beirut, said Khanfar, who is now president of the Sharq Forum, a think tank focusing on political development, social justice and economic prosperity in the Middle East.

“If Syria is out of it, you are talking about the decline of Iranian influence in the region and that means they may not become as “dangerous” in the Gulf as they are right now and this will give more confidence and a more relaxed environment for serious changes to take place in the region.”

Al Jazeera, which was launched in 1996, differed from other Arab channels because although heavily funded by Quatar’s royal family, it had not followed the same policy of focusing on the leaders but instead had set out to spread democracy and human rights and to feel the pulse of the region, he said:

“The whole phenomena of Al Jazeera is against the whole custom and tradition of journalism in the Arab world by that time, because it started with a different perspective about news, which before used to be something that was owned by the state and the state tailored what exactly should appear and everyone understood that TV was what the state wants us to know.

In 1996 everyone would watch TV in order to know what the state was talking about.” Asked if he was aware of the significance of what the channel’s stance as people were “flocking” to the screens to watch Al Jazeera, Khanfar said he was aware it was “a matter of life and death”:

“By that time I had seen our office in Baghdad bombed, an office in Kabul bombed, by that time we had a colleague of ours in Guantanamo, another one in court in Spain. Definitely we knew how dangerous the situation was.”

The Al Jazeera audience is “highly politicised” and would notice any change in editorial policy following his departure last year, said Khanfar, who insisted the decision to leave was his own:

“I thought for a long while that eight years was how long I could survive always being proactive and creative, and that’s enough. Also, the Arab world is living a new mood and I feel I could do something as well which Al Jazeera cannot allow me to do, which is becoming part of the transformation of this dynamic region. I would like to speak my opinion and play a more political role.”