For the Arab world, lots of new channels, but still the same old story

February 26, 2015
Saudi Arabia's Prince Waleed bin Talal waves upon his arrival in Ramallah

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Waleed bin Talal (C) waves upon his arrival in the West Bank town of Ramallah, March 4, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

In the weeks and months before its launch, Alarab news channel promised to be something revolutionary in the Middle East: an independent source of news. With plenty of money from a billionaire Saudi prince backing the venture, and the blessing of the Bahrain government to broadcast from the country, Alarab made its debut on Feb. 1.

The great experiment in independent news lasted only hours. By the following morning, the Bahrain government had shut down Alarab for what it called “administrative” reasons, saying the network had not obtained the proper licenses to broadcast. It is interesting to note, however, that the plug was pulled on the upstart news network after it aired an interview with Khalil al-Marzooq, a leader of the country’s main opposition party. In the interview, al-Marzooq was critical of the government’s decision to strip the citizenship of activists campaigning for increased rights for the country’s minority Shi’ite population. Alarab gave Bahrain’s minister of information, Isa al-Hammadi, airtime to rebut al-Marzooq’s position. Still, in suspending the station, Bahrain’s Information Ministry noted Alarab failed “to take account of efforts aimed at stemming the tide of extremism and terrorism throughout the region.” The Bahrain government denies the network was suspended for political reasons. It is reportedly moving to permanently dismantle it.

Alarab’s attempted rise and conspicuous fall provide a glimpse into the increasingly rough and tumble world of TV news in the Middle East, where there are now vast fortunes to be made, but steep political hurdles remain.

Announcing Alarab’s launch in September 2011, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal promised an independent news outlet inspired by the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Alwaleed asserted his channel’s independence from the Saudi government by headquartering it in Bahrain, instead of Dubai, Beirut or London, where many pan-Arab outlets have been based for years. The Arab Spring showed there was an audience for news outside what the Arab regimes were broadcasting, and Alwaleed’s close ties with the royal family in Bahrain indicated to industry observers the station had a chance to live up to its billing. The Bahrain government even offered tens of millions in financial incentives for the network to set up in the country, including a host of support services to help it get on off the ground. Bin Talal has not publicly commented on the suspension of the network.

Since the early days of Al Jazeera, launched in 1996 from Qatar as the first all-news Arabic channel in the region, the number of news channels has ballooned. There are now 66 networks competing for eyeballs and advertising, most of which are free to watch. The combination of Gulf wealth and a common written-form of the Arabic language mean there is money to be made in the news business. Thanks to the region’s growing pan-Arab TV advertising market, mostly concentrated in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, investment rolled in — more than $3 billion last year alone.

The Saudis have been the biggest players, and with the country forbidding independent media at home, many Saudi conglomerates began pouring money into creating news outlets in more liberal markets, first in London and later in Dubai. It was in London that the first Arab satellite variety channel Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) was set up in 1991. The MBC launch was followed by several government satellite television launches in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Lebanon, where governments saw in these channels a new communication avenue to disseminate their political views to a wider audience across the region. Rigid media laws and self-censorship, however, have remained the norm across the region. That’s meant every news channel needs a patron state to survive and that government influence is evident in coverage throughout the region.

After the ousting of Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt in 2013, the coverage of the event differed depending on what channel you watched, and the political interests of the governments that backed it. The Qatari-funded Al Jazeera, for example, faced harsh criticism for decrying the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt. Qatar has been a long-standing supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood abroad, in part to prevent the Islamist movement from opposing its rule at home. The rival, Saudi-funded Al Arabiya channel, on the other hand, trumpeted the news of the change in power that was supported by Saudi Arabia. Elsewhere, a new media player, Al Mayadeen TV, was set up by a former Al Jazeera anchor to give voice to the Syrian-Iranian community and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and counterbalance Saudi influence there. Newcomer Al Araby Al Jadid, launched in London this year by a private Qatari holding company is trying to distance itself from the regional political squabbles Al Jazeera has become embroiled in, but still faces deep suspicion from Egypt and others that it is another Qatari-funded venture aimed at supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

Unsurprisingly, different versions of the news have created conflicts in their own right. Since the start of Arab uprisings in 2010, Bahrain has accused Iran of funding 40 satellite channels aimed at waging hostile propaganda against Bahrain and the Gulf States. Egypt shut down 12 satellite channels and 20 others were issued warnings for insulting religion. In Iraq, the government suspended the licenses of 10 satellite channels for what it described as the promotion of sectarian discourse. Despite the best intentions, Alarab met a similar fate and so far has not mounted a public fight to try to ensure its survival. The network’s apparent demise once again shows that, in the Middle East, no matter how much money there is to be made in media, once the political backing evaporates, so does the news.

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TV is dying. The Arab world is dying. This is the sickness of excess and tedium.

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