Saudi Arabia's Media Influence
Issue 3, Fall 2007
Al Arabiya presenter Cyba Audi in the studio. Photograph courtesy of Al Arabiya.
When Saddam Hussein’s forces rolled across the border into Kuwait in 1991, Riyadh kept the Saudi population in the dark for three days before realizing that most Saudis had tuned into CNN to find out what was going on with their Gulf neighbor. This rude awakening was the beginning of a fundamental turning point in kingdom’s media strategy which until the early 1990s, had been largely confined to newspaper ownership.
Over the past seventeen years the Saudi establishment has used its deep pockets to influence the region’s media and minds, morphing from an approach that paid off and intimidated media that ran negative reports on the kingdom to become one of the Middle East’s most influential media owners.
As a result of the 1991 Gulf War, individuals close to the royal family decided to internationalize the kingdom’s media presence, launching the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) in London, backed by the then Saudi king’s in-law, Walid Ibrahim.
“In the first Saudi era there was more of a tendency to buy individuals,” said As‘ad AbuKhalil, a politics professor at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia.  “Before 1990 there were competing ownerships of Arab media – Libya, Iraq, UAE and Saudi Arabia. These were the major contenders. Ever since that time it is fair to say the media came entirely open for Saudi Arabia and the multiplicity [of media outlets] reflects the multiplicity of princes [that own media outlets].”
The Arab Radio and Television Network (ART) came hot on the heels of MBC, founded by Saudi mogul Saleh Abdullah Kamel in 1993, with a line up of entertainment, music and sport.
ART was followed in 1994 with the then Rome-based Orbit Communications Corporation (the Orbit pay-per view network is now based in Bahrain), a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian Mawarid Group, which ran a BBC Arabic Television channel from 1994 until 1996 when it was abruptly pulled off air.
In the same year that Orbit pulled the plug on BBC TV Arabic (which is set to restart soon, this time funded by the British taxpayer), ART’s Kamel bought 49% of the Cayman Islands-registered satellite channel Fada’iyya Al Lubnaniyya (the Lebanese Satellite Channel, LBC International), the pan-Arab version of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) TV channel.
In 2000, Kamel sold his shares to the world’s now thirteenth richest man, Saudi prince Al-Walid Bin Talal, for $100 million. Bin Talal is the Rupert Murdoch of media ownership in the Middle East, with his Kingdom Holding companies owning the region’s largest music label (Rotana Records), six music TV channels (Rotana Clip, Rotana Music, Rotana Gulf, Rotana Cinema, Rotana Tarab, Rotana Zaman), and a stake in Lebanese newspapers An Nahar and Ad Diyar in addition to his stake in LBCI (Bin Talal, incidentally, is the third largest shareholder in Murdoch’s News Corp., with 5.46% of voting shares).
Prince Khalid bin Sultan is also a shareholder in LBC and owner of pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. Due to his position as Assistant Minister of Defense for Military Affairs, bin Sultan’s role as a shareholder is significant as he can be considered a state actor, and consequently able to exert certain pressure over LBC to pander to the Saudi establishment.
The only other political outlet in which the Saudi government has a reportedly direct stake, other than newspapers and domestic media outlets which are subjected to draconian laws within Saudi Arabia, is MBC’s all-news satellite channel Al Arabiya. This network was established in 2003 to counter Qatar’s Al Jazeera, a channel Riyadh has disliked ever since it went on air in 1996, rankled by investigative reports on corruption in many Arab countries and the airing of Osama bin Laden video statements. Al Jazeera was seen as so controversial that at one point Saudi Arabia banned men from watching television at cafes to prevent public discussions of what was on.
Although Saudi influence over the region’s newspaper business (particularly pan-Arab publications) still remains high, the significance of muzzling print press is not as great as it used to be. Like everywhere else on earth, the Middle East is tuning into TV news rather than picking up a paper.
“Newspapers are only important in so far as what intellectuals, journalists and politicians are reading. If you go to Arab countries and ask about a [newspaper] columnist, they won’t know who they are, but will know TV anchors,” said AbuKhalil.
The Big Issue
Saudi Arabia’s takeover of the region’s media is a reflection of what is occurring globally where a handful of multinational companies increasingly dominate the media. This spills over from entertainment into news coverage.
To Saudi Arabia such control is paramount in an era when the media is increasingly pervasive, because Riyadh’s political and economic clout – and the survival of the Royal family – depends on the kingdom retaining its position as a leading player in the region’s power politics. To retain this balance of power – held in the region by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia against an ascendant Iran and non-governmental actors – informative and potentially damning news on the kingdom needs to be squashed.
Saudi Arabia’s approach to media under its control, and the harsh punishments on those that do not portray a rose-tinted view of the royal family and the kingdom, is mirrored in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which have similarly draconian media laws to retain monarchical power bases. Qatar can be considered somewhat of an exception with Al Jazeera, but when it comes to the channel applying the same exposure to governmental malfeasance and social issues in Doha as it does elsewhere in the region, Al Jazeera comes up short.
 Marwan M. Kraidy, “Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Changing Arab Information Order,” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007), 139-156, p. 141.
 See Said K. Aburish’s The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud (London: Bloomsbury, 1994), p. 216
 MBC’s shareholder list has never been revealed. It is widely assumed that the Saudi royal family has a stake in the network led by chairman and CEO Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Brahim. In 2002, the network moved operations to Dubai’s Media City and production houses to Beirut, as well as expanding entertainment to MBC 2, MBC 3, MBC 4 and MBC Action MBC also owned United Press International (UPI) from 1994 until it sold the news service in 2000 to Reverend Sun Myung Moon's News World Communications.
 AbuKhalil also has a popular blog – www.angryarab.blogspot.com
 Showtime Arabia, the region’s other leading pay-TV network, established in 1996, is not Saudi-owned. Kuwaiti company KIPCO has a 79% stake and the CBS Corporation has the remaining 21%.
 Marwan M. Kraidy, “Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Changing Arab Information Order,” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007), 139-156, p. 143.
 Bin Talal announced in August that Rotana is to be merged with LBCI, although the two institutions will remain financially independent - LBCI and Rotana to Merge Prior to Listing on Dubai Stock Market - 10 Aug 2007 - http://www.ifpexpo.com/News_show_news.asp?id=2909
An investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists on Saudi Arabia found that: 1) Government officials dismiss editors, suspend or blacklist dissident writers, order news blackouts on controversial topics, and admonish independent columnists over their writings to deter undesirable criticism or to appease religious constituencies 2) The country’s conservative religious establishment acts as a powerful lobbying force against enterprising coverage of social, cultural, and religious matters. The multilayered religious sector includes official clerics, religious scholars, the religious police, radical revivalist preachers, and their followers 3) Compliant government-approved editors squelch controversial news, acquiesce to official pressures to tone down coverage, and silence critical voices - http://cpj.org/Briefings/2006/saudI_06/saudi_06_printer.html
 Marwan M. Kraidy, “Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Changing Arab Information Order,” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007), 139-156, p. 139.
 Ian Richardson, The Arabic TV “Monster”, first published in The Independent and Al-Quds Al-Arabi, April 1997. Available at: www.richardsonmedia.co.uk/arabic.html
 Ian Black. “Latest allegations ignored by a submissive media,” The Guardian. June 8, 2007
 Andrew Hammond. “Saudi media empire tries to counter opposition,” Reuters, 9 August 2007