RIYADH, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia will send an ambassador to Qatar for the first time in five years, signalling a thaw in relations between the Gulf Arab rivals.
Qatar’s Al Jazeera television has also permission to cover the haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia this year.
But the apparent rapprochement has raised concern among observers that the Arab network, the most popular in the region and one of the few to cover news seen as critical of Saudi Arabia, is toning down its coverage of Saudi affairs.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Tuesday an ambassador would return “immediately”, after King Abdullah attended a summit of Gulf Arab leaders in Qatar this month.
Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s leading political and economic power, withdrew its ambassador to Doha in 2002 partly in protest over Jazeera shows on Saudi politics.
Riyadh was also angered by Qatar’s independent role in the Gulf, establishing ties with Israel and offering Washington military facilities.
Qatari leaders, who fund Jazeera, have visited Saudi Arabia several times this year for talks trumpeted by Saudi media.
Lebanese political scientist As’ad Abu Khalil commented about “the demise of Al Jazeera” on his popular blog.
"This explains why I am only asked to speak about the U.S. on Jazeera: no more about Arab regimes," he wrote (angryarab.blogspot.com).
The Saudi Information Ministry confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday that Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels will send teams to cover the haj in Mecca, when over two million pilgrims from around the world converge on the birthplace of Islam.
Jazeera has been banned from covering the haj most years and so far has no office in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with no political parties or elected parliament.
Saudi companies do not advertise, depriving the channel of revenue from the Arab world’s leading market.
A Jazeera spokesman could not confirm if the channel would now open a Riyadh office. Qatar says it does not interfere in the channel’s programming.
Jazeera has been a thorn in the side of Arab governments because it covers sensitive issues generally avoided by state media, who omit news that would offend the Saudi government.
The kingdom owns or influences most of the Arab media, and Jazeera has been seen as one of the few voices outside the grip of Saudi control.
The channel gave prominent coverage to accusations of corruption reported in the British press in 2007 involving a Saudi royal and the billion-dollar “al-Yamamah” oil-for-arms sales.
“The last negative thing they covered was the Yamamah affair, after that they changed policy,” said Saudi political analyst Khaled al-Dakhil.
“Jazeera has never been independent, it’s owned by the Qatari government. But the most important thing now is for the channel to maintain a reasonable degree of professionalism.”
But since then it has said little about women who protested against the indefinite detention of their husbands, arrest of pro-democracy activists, or a rape victim sentenced to lashes.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul
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