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London’s Arab Media and the Construction of Arabness

For more than twenty years-since the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1976-London has served as the unparalleled centre of Arabic-language media. This study, drawn from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in London's Arab media institutions, challenges two contentions emerging from recent academic literature on transnationalism and new media technologies. Firstly, it contests the assumption that transnational or global cultural forms engender a cosmopolitan disposition (Breckenridge et. al. 2000; Lamont 2000; Pecoud 2000; Vertovec 2000; Zachary 2000). A way of thinking, being, and understanding beyond the confines of a single society, cosmopolitanism reflects a global or transnational attitude towards the world, a desire for and appreciation of cultural diversity (Vertovec 2000:7; Hannerz 1990). Paradoxically, the case of London's GCC sponsored pan-Arab media indicates that claims of growing cosmopolitanism may be overstated and that local and or regional orientations often remain paramount. Here transnational forms, structures and technologies are used to reinscribe and reconstruct local identities, ways of thinking, and modes of social organisation. The transnational character of Arab media-it's London base-results not in increasing cosmopolitanism, but rather in the development of new notions of Arabism (Hudson 2001; Anderson 1999) and new arenas for local disputes and rivalries.

Secondly, it qualifies some of the more ambitious claims for the democratising potential of new media technologies to transform social and political organisation and identification and to widen participation and debate (Hudson 2001; Anderson 1999; Eickelman and Anderson 1999). This ethnography suggests that satellite television has worked to strengthen rather than undermine existing regimes as new televisual media have been harnessed by Gulf ruling elites to support and enhance non-democratic power structures in the Gulf Cooperation Council States.

Global London plays a central role in the construction of Arab localisms. These new localisms are themselves a product of prolonged contact with the metropolis, as London-based intermediaries channel and control global flows of news and information to Arabs in the Middle East and beyond. This elite core of expatriate Arab journalists and their wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state and private financers have harnessed-even pioneered-new global information technologies for a decidedly local purpose. (1) London is pan-Arab media's production centre. While many of its products are available in Britain through satellite technology, the Middle East itself is their major consumption site.

Work analysing the product and consumption of new media technologies in the Middle East is just beginning to emerge. Extant sources are largely speculative, predicting the democratising influence they believe the internet and satellite TV will have on Arab polity and society (Hudson 2001; Anderson 1999; Eickelman and Anderson 1999; Alterman 1999, 1998a xii; Forrester 1998). In an argument extending Benedict Anderson (and reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan), new pan-Arab and pan-Islamic imagined communities are said to be emerging through internet usage and satellite TV watching, although ethnographic evidence supporting such claims is scant (Hudson 2001; Alterman 1999, 1998a; Eickelman and Anderson 1999). Little work on new media consumption has appeared. Yet it must be remembered that the more ambitious predictions for the revolutionary potential of terrestrial television have proved groundless. (2) Indeed, given that much of the academic material is available-sometimes exclusively-on-line, it appears that new technologies have revolutionised the production and consumption of academic work more than it has Arab politics or society.

Media industry informants in London remain sceptical about the more optimistic claims for the new media's potential to provoke change. Al-Hayat journalist Salim Nassar, for instance, argues "globalisation might force a change in the style of government, but it is change within the system, not against governments" (interview 24 March 2000). Likewise, Asharq al Awsat's Senior Managing Affairs Editor Eyad Abu Chakra sees new media as a "safety valve" which will produce no significant change. Satellite television remains largely in the control of GCC state or elite private sponsors despite its cutting edge, transnational, metropolitan production. The following case studies of London-based Arab media institutions point to satellite television as a vehicle for continuity rather than change.

Middle East Broadcasting (MBC)

As corporate legend has it, Sheikh Walid, son-in-law of King Fahd, was sitting with a group of friends on a trip to the United States, lamenting the unavailability of Saudi football abroad. (3) Thus the idea of an Arab satellite channel was born. MBC was launched in September 1990, as a commercial venture funded by the Sheikh. The first Arab satellite TV station, its explicit aim, according to Iranian-born Managing Editor Alla Salehian, was to promote Arabs and Arabic, and Saudi Arabia in particular (interview 1 July 1999). Yet it also sees itself as Pan-Arab. MBC coverage extends from Scandinavia to North Africa, and from Ireland to Eastern Europe, including the entire Middle East and India.

A privately owned station, MBC aims to promote aspects of Arabic Culture [sic] and to encourage exchanges of interest and goodwill throughout the Arab world, thereby creating a greater understanding of the ambitions and achievements of all Arab peoples. At the same time it is intended to keep the viewers informed of events and developments worldwide (MBC PR Dept. booklet 1999).

London was chosen as the station's headquarters because of its access to news sources. The station's first priority is news, according to Salehian. Although it creates no revenue-and indeed is itself expensive-news establishes credibility. Also, he points out, London provided a skilled workforce, important in the early days, when Arab countries lacked trained personnel. London is "internationally regarded as the broadcasting capital of the world with unequalled facilities, talent and expertise in the field" (MBC PR Dept booklet, 1999).

Salehian admits that heavy censorship, controlled directly by the Sheikh himself, marked MBC's first few years. Not a day went by without at least one phone call from the Sheikh's office. Before the channel became encrypted, 'editorial controllers'-as the censors were called-outnumbered editors. In the early years, the Saudis didn't trust MBC editors to make appropriate decisions, but slowly trust was gained. Censors sometimes "made mistakes," and the Saudis now realise that editorial decision-making is "best left to the editors themselves, who had learned over the years what was acceptable." Editors, it seems, have so internalised Saudi censorship principals as to render formal censors superfluous. (4) By the time of mass redundancies in 1998, all of MBC's editorial controllers had been let go. Direct influence from Saudi Arabia has decreased: "now they feel confident in our programrs' ability to predict what is acceptable. There have been no phone calls from Saudi Arabia in a year."

MBC programs include news and weather, current affairs (including live debate and phone-in shows), and sports. The in-house Production Department also produces cultural, popular cultural, health, and magazine-style programs. One program features viewer feedback and requests (Public Relations Department 1999). MBC also holds periodic charity appeals with the Sheikh often matching the proceeds raised.

No accurate estimates of audience numbers exist. "We are a long way from reaching accurate and reliable figures on viewership," noted Salehian. Estimates for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are 55 million. Market research firm Paradigm constructed a viewer profile, based on 120 viewers in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Asked to describe MBC as a person, audiences depicted a family man in his late 30's, middle to upper middle class with a large disposable income, an owner of a large home with an expensive car, and-above all-a professional. MBC is regarded as serious and trustworthy, and is classed as a "safe," family channel.

When asked about competition from newer satellite channels, Salehian replied that "as the only commercial satellite TV station to combine in-depth news coverage with entertainment and cultural programming, MBC has no direct competitor." LBC is known primarily as a racy entertainment channel (likened in the Paradigm survey to a 'loose woman'). Al Jazeera, with its looser editorial controls, has been broadcasting some daring material, thus attracting news viewers away from MBC.

MBC is now trying to draw a younger, less conservative audience. Yet editorial controls remain in place. According to former MBC employee Waleed al-Moajil:

MBC has one criterion: not to offend the Saudis. MBC will go after stories as long as they don't offend established GCC regimes. Also, anything to do with issues of human rights is a no-go area. They don't want to raise the issue. Beyond this, there are the favourite "whipping posts," such as Israel. If there is a Middle East slant, they go after it, such as Algerians in France. Arab themes are central to production. Western news must be big news (interview 28 July 1999).

Moajil's characterisation of MBC is in keeping with the notion that new technologies are producing new localisms and parochialisms rather than increasing cosmopolitanism:

MBC is a very unique company. It is run like a small Middle Eastern country, even with Ritchie as its head. Because there are so many Arabs working there, they fall into cliques. Lebanese look after Lebanese, and everyone else resents them for it, for example. MBC is inward-looking, insular, and parochial. I don't believe MBC is really working within, as part of the British television industry. By virtue of the techniques it employs, it has provided its own criteria. I wanted to learn more about modern newsgathering techniques and how they are applied on a global level. I wasn't getting that at MBC.

Informants note that MBC programming has moved away from news and "serious issues" and towards politically neutral entertainment, perhaps in response to competition from Al Jazeera. Documentaries are infrequent, while MTV-style popular music shows and in-house Arab music concerts are regular. Such televisual offerings, along with game shows such as the Arab version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" are unlikely to challenge existing political or social structures.

Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera channel's London bureau shares a building just off Carnaby Street with several other stations-Sony Entertainment and a South Asia channel among them. (5) The area exudes youthful trendiness. When I met with Yosri Fouda-having scheduled a meeting with another staff member-it took a few minutes before I realised I was talking to the Bureau Chief, so unpretentious was his attitude and the general atmosphere of the place. He describes Al Jazeera as "the premier Arab news channel in terms of programming" and contrasts the station with MBC:

I don't know whether you're familiar with Arab media. MBC was the first satellite channel, but when you compare us to them, we are a bit different in terms of programming, and in terms of philosophy. Probably the biggest difference is the amount of freedom we have to tackle any issue, as long as it's being tackled in an objective, balanced way. The main difference is that, first of all, we are only news and current affairs, an information channel. We're not a variety channel like MBC. MBC is a variety channel. It's like comparing the BBC World Service to ITV, or CNN to ITV. So that's a big difference to start with, in terms of programming. Second is the space of freedom to tackle controversial issues, how we deal with things (interview 2 August 1999).

Fouda holds that Al Jazeera operates with a broader vision than other Arab media organisations:

Are you coming out from a country with a more cosmopolitan attitude to dealing with things, or are you still, even though you are technically covering the whole world, doing so with a very local mentality? This is the difference-it's not only types of programs, or even how you deal with the content. For instance, whenever there is, say, a 20-second sound bite with someone talking, we always ask where he's from, even if he is Qatari. The Saudi's won't identify a Saudi. This is what I mean by mentality. That kind of thing, this is what I mean. This is one major difference. I think we have more of a cosmopolitan attitude, or at least a pan-Arab attitude.

Despite its renown, Al Jazeera commissions little market research, and has little sense of viewer numbers or profile. "I think this is one of the weakest points of Arab businesses in general, including TV," admits Fouda:

They do not really keep in close contact with the end user of whatever they are producing; We have direct contact with our viewers, because we are probably the biggest TV when it comes to live shows, phone-in programs which put the viewer in direct contact. We also get feedback through e-mail. But I must say, we haven't done a proper survey, to really know what it is that people like about us, and what it is that we can improve.

As for al-Jazeera's employee-profile breakdown, Fouda argues that although no deliberate policy of diversification governs personnel decisions, the station boasts the most geographically varied workforce in Arab television:

We never thought this way. And this I can tell you because I worked for the BBC Arabic Service, and I know a lot about MBC: the most diversified place among Arab media is Al Jazeera. The only black newsreader is with Al Jazeera. And we did it on purpose. We said, there must be someone good happens to be black. Not only nice-looking, pretty females reading the news. The most important thing is journalistic ability. Plus, they have to be presentable. But presentable, employees come from Morocco, Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, Sudan. They come from everywhere. That's one of the positive points about Al Jazeera; it provides a lot of opportunity.

Al Jazeera has gained a reputation for broaching controversial subjects. The station's British Production manager Rachel Staal argues, "We have fewer limitations than the BBC. If there's a story that's worth telling, we do it" (interview 2 August 1999). Many of the hopes for new Arab media's democratising potential hinged on Al Jazeera's supposed editorial freedom. Yet constraints appear far reaching: "Some things there's no point in covering. We want things people in the Arab World will enjoy. We don't just want to upset people." Staal gave the example of a proposed story on child abuse in an Arab country, which was rejected, as viewers were deemed unready for such material. "Criticising governments is one thing, culture is another. Poetry, the Qur'an, culture generally is difficult territory." Paternal elitism holds the station's progressive potential firmly in check.

Fouda has his own investigative program, Sirri li-l-Ghayah (Top Secret), modelled on the BBC's Panorama. The fact that this program is produced in London testifies to the city's reputation among Arab journalists as a centre of access to information. Al Jazeera clearly takes inspiration from the American CNN. One program in particular closely parallels a CNN: "Suwar" consists of footage from around the world free from voiceover. One episode featured scenes from demonstrations in Tehran against the violence in Chechnya, the St. Patrick's Day parade on New York's Fifth Avenue-along with the gay protest against it-, bullfighting in Madrid, a "Toys of the 21st Century" exhibit in Tokyo, and polar bear cubs enjoying their new home at the Colorado Zoo. Yet despite these glimpses of a wider world, Arab issues-and the issue of Arabness-remain paramount. Fouda describes the station's criteria for newsworthiness:

You are not talking to only a certain group, or a certain mentality or area, and you adopt a pan-Arab mentality, this is the number one criterion that will help you decide whether this news item someone in Mauritania would be interested to know about, someone in Somalia or Iraq or Morocco, if it will have some effect on them, i.e. is it too local? Or will other Arab people, whether in the Arab World or somewhere else, anywhere in the world, be interested to know a little bit more. This is criterion number one. We'll try to see the value, let's say there was a fire in Malaysia and five people were burned to death. So many considerations are going to be involved here: was it an accident? The husband was going to make some tea, he's ignorant, it's his first time in the kitchen, and it was all an accident. If this is the case, then maybe not. But maybe it was racially motivated-a Muslim did it to a Christian family, or it was politically motivated. Then the news item begins to gain significance. Maybe someone who lives in Egypt would like to know a little bit more about it, because we know that Malaysia's got so many Muslims living there, and there are some troubles. There are so many factors involved here, I can not really tell you what those factors are in each case because they differ considerably, especially since your playground is the whole world.

While news bulletins are international in character, feature programs-for which the station is most well known-reveal a clear preference for Middle East-related topics. The channel's two live call-in debate shows Akthar min Ra'y (More Than an Opinion) and al-Ittijah al-Mucakis (The Opposite Viewpoint) reflect this priority. Stall pointed to the widespread appeal of these programs: "We've had Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein phoning in."

Critics argue that Al Jazeera stirs up controversy for its own sake. Al-Hayat's Salim Nassar holds that the network was conceived to attack Saudi Arabia:

Sami Haddad [moderator of Akthar min Ra'y] is always ringing me asking for suggestion for topics and guests. He always says, 'We need something hot.' Those people working at Al Jazeera have a grudge against Saudi Arabia, because they were with the BBC's Arabic TV, which the Saudis had disbanded when they could not control the content. So there were 30 BBC employees with no where to go. Qatar picked them up. Sami Haddad always poses questions to put Saudi Arabia in a bad light. Qatar, in the meantime, escapes criticism-it is a small country affected by Saudi policy, so it feels proud when it is able to attack Saudi Arabia.

Sceptical of the new communication technologies' potential to positively transform Arab politics and society, Ashark al-Awsat's Eyad Abu Chakra deems the recent increase in access to information ineffectual:

We are going through the American syndrome in a way. There are two ways of preventing people from seeing everything: in the former USSR there was too little, in the USA too much, and much of it frivolous. By the end of the day, you develop a one-track mind.Now Al Jazeera Channel is exploiting a very interesting thing-frustration with closed societies, with conditions, regimes, and censorship. Sometimes the Arab press overdoes it, then freedoms are revoked. Most of the regimes play this game: they allow freedom, frustrations are vent, the press crosses a line, is irresponsible, and then freedom is revoked. Al Jazeera is exploiting this like no other station. We don't have the notion of responsibility and accountability.


One of the initial attractions London held for Arab media organisations was a perception of editorial freedom. But as Salim Nassar points out, "the strings are still there. We are not as free as we thought we would be. The place is different, but the issues are the same" (interview 23 March 2000). As Idris puts it, London Arab media's freedom is restricted "because its hands and eyes are abroad but it lives in the 'Arab nation's womb'" (1999:110).

Large-scale Arab media presence in London is dwindling, as technological infrastructures develop in the Gulf. The repatriation of offshore Arab media organisations Alterman predicted appears to be effecting London, as the city's high taxes and cost of living render media operations increasingly impractical (1998a.:66). The first instance was the return of Lebanese newspaper al-Hayat to Beirut in late 2000. The latest evidence of the Saudis' shrinking involvement in London is MBC's move to Dubai's new 'Media Free Zone' in 2001. An MBC management source admitted that the move makes good financial sense as, in addition to savings on salaries and taxes, the company would be able to do away with its retinue of highly qualified-and well-paid-accountants, who deal with Britain's stringent regulations. It forms part of the company's efforts to commercialise, to become a profit-making venture. MBC's move fits in with a general pattern of shrinking Saudi involvement in London. As to why the Saudis no longer want to invest in a London presence, an MBC source argues that they may no longer perceive a need:

The Saudis were the first to set up a satellite TV station in London, to bring Arabs Western news through Arab eyes. The Qataris have always competed with the Saudis, and are now trying to fill that role. The Saudis are no longer concerned with being the Arab World's presence in London. I think the emphasis may shift from culture to politics and economics, and become more low-key. After all, what have they gained from the station in a PR sense? They may just beef up their political and economic ties. The Saudis don't need to prove anything-they are an important country-but the Qataris need the publicity. Al Jazeera put Qatar on the map.


Consuming There, Producing Here The ethnographic material presented in this paper supports the notion that an increasingly global Arab media is producing new forms of localism rather than increased cosmopolitanism. Arab media may be produced in London, but it is focused primarily on, and read and viewed largely in, the Middle East itself. If London is, as Asharq Al Awsat's Abdul Rahman al-Rashed puts it, Arab media's "kitchen," then the Middle East itself is its dining room. The term "incoming press" ("al-wafida") referring to London's Arabic print media illustrates this unidirectional flow (Idris 1999:67). The relative importance of London as a production site is shrinking, as global technologies make possible-and London costs render expedient-media organisations' transfer to the Middle East itself. This represents a partial reversal of the globalisation process that has occurred during the last quarter century. In this sense, the locally based orientation and consumption of Arab media is now, increasingly, paralleled in production.

London's Arab media institutions help to reconstruct local identities, but they do not appear to engender wider or more participatory forms of social and political organisation. Much of pan-Arab satellite television remains under the control of Gulf patrons and expatriate Arab mediators, and reflects the interests of sponsoring states and state-controlled markets rather than those of an expanding public sphere in the Arab world. London, long the refuge of opposition and dissent, has also been home to organisations that support existing power structures in the Arab World. Transnational media technologies may eventually give rise to democratization and liberalization. Yet this ethnography of London's Arab press and television points to the conservative potential of new Arab media. (6)

Note: The author would like to thank Paul Dresch, James Piscatori, Nadim Shehadi and Madawi al-Rasheed for advice and suggestions on both the research and the writing of this article.


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(1) Gulf Cooperation Council involvement in offshore Arab media industries is extensive (Alterman 1999, 1998a., 1998b.; Kennedy 1999; Sakr 2002, 1999, 1998; Idris 1999; Schleifer 1998; Ragab 1993).

(2) See, for example, Van Zoonen, Liesbet and Jan Wieten, "It Wasn't Exactly a Miracle: The Arrival of Television in a Dutch Village." Media Culture and Society, 16(4): 641-659, 1994.

(3) MBC's commitment to football coverage remains firm: they were the only channel in the world to cover every match of the 1998 World Cup.

(4) For a detailed discussion of censorship and self-censorship among Arab satellite channels, see Sakr 2000.

(5) Al Jazeera's London bureau has since moved to a larger site on London's Embankment.

(6) Sakr in-depth meta-analysis draws similar conclusions, arguing that Arab satellite television industries reflect convergences of interest rather than the disjunctures commonly associated with globalization (2001: 64-65).

About Christa Salamandra

Christa Salamandra is Professor of Anthropology at Lehman College and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. Her work explores visual, mediated and urban culture in the Arab Middle East. She is the author of A New Old Damascus: Authenticity and Distinction in Urban Syria (Indiana University Press, 2004), and co-editor of Syria from Reform to Revolt (Syracuse University Press, 2015). Her manuscript-in-progress, Waiting for Light: Syrian Television Drama Production in the Satellite Era, explores the cultural politics of contemporary fictional TV creation. Forthcoming from Indiana University Press, this book draws on extensive fieldwork in Syria, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.

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