Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based media company, is publicly lobbying for a return to Snapchat's media publishing platform in Saudi Arabia, a move that comes as that country's efforts to silence media critics comes under intense scrutiny.
Snapchat removed Al Jazeera in 2017 from the Saudi Arabia edition of its Discover platform, which is a curated part of the app that features original content from media partners. Saudi Arabia claimed Al Jazeera had violated its media and cybercrime laws.
The move to block access coincided with the launch of an ongoing Saudi-led blockade against Qatar that began in 2017. Al Jazeera is also blocked from Snapchat Discover in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, two Saudi allies taking part in the blockade.
With no movement from Snapchat, the media company is going public with its calls to return to the platform.
“Al Jazeera has formally asked Snap to reinstate its Discover channels in those markets, to which Snap replied that they are constrained by a need to ‘comply with local laws,’” Michael Weaver, senior vice president of business development and growth at Al Jazeera, said in a statement.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Snapchat reiterated an earlier statement: “We make an effort to comply with local laws in the countries where we operate."
Snapchat is particularly popular in Saudi Arabia, with 14 million active users, more than Instagram or Twitter, according to Crowd Analyzer, an Arabic-focused social media analysis firm.
“Snapchat acts as a vital distribution point for news in Saudi Arabia, especially among its youth," Yaser Bishr, executive vice president of digital media for Al Jazeera Media Network, said in a statement. "Millions of Saudis engaged with Al Jazeera’s reporting before our Discover channel was shut down, and they deserve to have that access back.”
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Yasir Khan, a former senior editor of digital video at Al Jazeera, said that before the blockade the media company had a good relationship with Snapchat and was an early partner on Discover.
"Prior to the blockade Snapchat was a huge fan of Al Jazeera," Khan said. "We started using Snapchat before most other channels. I find it curious if it was O.K. to be curated before the blockade, but not after."
Bishr said that the dispute with Snapchat over access was an example of a broader attempt by Saudi Arabia to “silence free of expression and deny Saudi citizens access to objective reporting on issues that impact their lives.”
The spotlight is now on Saudi Arabia and its efforts to silence its critics after its leadership admitted that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, earlier this month. The Saudi commentator is a former advisor to Saudi royals who later fell out with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Turkish officials have alleged that a Saudi hit team was sent to murder Khashoggi inside the consulate. The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News, that his death had been a “tremendous mistake” and that “those who are responsible are punished.”
Al Jazeera first launched in 1996 as an all-news satellite TV channel beaming out critical coverage of Saudi Arabia and other governments to an estimated 40 million Arab viewers.
In 2006, it launched Al Jazeera English for an international audience and then Al Jazeera America in 2013. The U.S. channel was pulled off the air three years later, but Al Jazeera continues to make inroads on social media with its AJ+ service and the U.S. version of Snapchat’s Discover platform.
For more than two decades now, the Saudi government has expended considerable energy trying to take down Al Jazeera, including calling for the media outlet to be shut down as part of broader demands related to the blockade, and the kingdom has rarely missed a reason to criticize the company’s coverage. During the most recent World Cup, Saudi Arabia accused Al Jazeera’s international sports network BeIN of bias and threatened legal action for its reporting on the country’s 5-0 loss to Russia.
Tension between Al Jazeera, Snapchat and Saudi Arabia also highlights the complex business and political relationships in the region.
Snapchat has financial ties to Saudi Arabia through billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who announced in August he held a 2.3 percent stake in the company, then worth $250 million. Alwaleed was detained in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh in February by his cousin Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of the country’s anti-corruption crackdown, which some observers interpreted as a shakedown and palace coup. He was later freed after he allegedly agreed to surrender a share of his wealth to the government. In an interview with Bloomberg, Alwaleed declined to discuss the terms of his release.
Al Jazeera is still able to operate on Snapchat outside of Discover, and is active in Saudi Arabia on Facebook and Instagram.
NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, invested $500 million in Snapchat in March 2017.
Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper and website, said that relations between Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia have only worsened since the Saudis started the blockade against Qatar.
"Things have gotten worse in the last two years, especially after the Qatar blockade," Bazzi said. "There has been a greater push for more political interference and muzzling of the media throughout the region."