EXCLUSIVE: The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on January 23 continues to have reverberations throughout the conservative Kingdom and beyond, creating more uncertainty in a media landscape already struggling with multiple regional crises.
New Saudi King Salman unveiled a cabinet reshuffle that included Adel Al Toraifi, the former head of MBC’s Al-Arabiya news channel, as the new Minister of Culture and Information. Only a day later, Saudi Prince (and News Corp shareholder) Al-Waleed Bin Talal suffered a shocking public humiliation with the shuttering of his vaunted Al Arab news channel mere hours after it launched.
Though Al Arab’s official Twitter account blamed the outage on “technical and administrative reasons” and hoped to be back on air shortly, commentators in the region are claiming the real reason is likelier to be political pressure from Bahrain’s hardline prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman and, more important, from Saudi Arabia itself.
“None of us believe it is because of technical reasons. It is a political decision,” Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, the Saudi journalist and former head of Al-Arabiya, told Deadline. “I am surprised. I knew it would have a difficult time but few of us thought it would be shut down completely.”
Al Arab’s troubles appear to stem from broadcasting an interview with the Bahraini opposition activist Khalil al-Marzooq in which he discussed the Bahraini government’s decision over the weekend to revoke — without prior notice or legal process — the citizenship of 72 people. Journalists, bloggers and human rights activists are believed to be among the affected, as well as a number of ISIS-affiliated extremists.
While Arab journalists routinely have to deal with blowback from their rulers, the decision to shut down Prince Al-Waleed’s channel is all the more shocking given the high profile and influence Bin Talal enjoys. One of the Arab world’s richest businessmen, his holding company Kingdom has stakes in the likes of Citigroup and Twitter, in addition to News Corp.
Al-Waleed also chose to base Al Arab — in which he partnered with Bloomberg to provide five hours of financial analysis — in Bahrain following the quelled 2011 uprising as a public vote of support in Bahrain’s embattled minority Sunni ruling family. There have been reports of significant financial subsidies in place to entice the Prince away from the more socially permissive environment of nearby Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Ironically, Bin Talal chose Bahrain as a base instead of Saudi Arabia precisely because he had been promised complete political autonomy.
“News is trouble, full-stop,” says one Saudi media exec. “This is a region of sides and opinions. It’s very difficult to act like the BBC here. You have to take a side and act accordingly.”
Execs at Waleed’s Kingdom and Rotana Media Group maintained a stony silence when contacted by Deadline for comment on the day’s events. It remains to be seen whether Bin Talal will be able to exert his own considerable influence and get the channel back on the air in the short term. He has already invested considerable time and money in fashioning a third option to the dominant likes of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.
Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s single most important media market in terms of ad spend and political influence. Cinemas have been banned in the kingdom since the late 1970’s and film financing remains more the domain of nearby Abu Dhabi with the likes of Image Nation. TV, on the other hand, is ubiquitous. It is no coincidence that Al Arab finally launched after much delay only days after the death of King Abdullah. The channel has been seen by some as the Prince’s attempt to have a greater influence on public opinion in Saudi Arabia. Prince Waleed has long held political ambitions in both Saudi Arabia and his mother’s homeland of Lebanon.
One only need look at the conveyor belt of political VVIPs who travelled to Saudi Arabia these past few days to pay their condolences — including President Obama, Brit P.M. David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande — to grasp the abiding strategic importance of Saudi Arabia. Prince Waleed’s stinging rebuke is a clear signal of intent from King Salman and his new administration. Some had seen his appointment of the youthful Al Toraifi, only 36 with a degree from the London School of Economics, as an initial sign of greater openness.
“I don’t believe it has anything to do with opening up,” says Al-Rashed. “Adel is a professional who understands the media and will be a good communicator with the outside world. But I am optimistic. There is too much technology these days, from Twitter to Facebook and Whatsapp to stop the flow on information. You can stop one channel but how can you stop thousands of people? Saudi Arabia is a snail. It might not cover much distance but at least there is movement. The highest percentage of Twitter users in the world come from Saudi Arabia, not America.”
That fact may be of little consolation to Prince Al-Waleed, a significant investor in Twitter, while he weighs up his next move. His one silver lining may come from the adage that all publicity is good publicity. For if Al Arab does get back on air, it will have succeeded in creating a provocative brand identity in a crowded marketplace — in less than than 24 hours.