By James M. Dorsey
July 22, 2018
Long satisfied to attempt to dominate
pan-Arab media and battle it out with Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television
network, Saudi Arabia has now set its hegemonic sights on influencing the media
landscape of the non-Arabic speaking greater Middle East.
In the wake of Crown Prince Mohammed bin
Salman’s concentration last year of control of Saudi-owned pan-Arab media in an
anti-corruption power and asset grab, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG)
this week announced a tie up with Britain’s Independent news website to launch
services in Urdu, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic.
The announcement provided no details of the
business model or whether and, if so, how the SRMG-owned, independent-branded
websites would become commercially viable. That may not be an issue from the
Independent’s perspective, given that the deal amounts to the British
publication licensing its brand and content to a Saudi partner.
The bulk of the content of the new websites
is slated to be produced by SRMG journalists in London, Islamabad, Istanbul and
New York, with the Independent contributing only translated articles from its
The sites, operated out of Riyadh and
Dubai, would produce “highest-quality, free-thinking, independent news, insight
and analysis on global affairs and local events,” the Independent said.
SRMG publishes the English-language Arab
News and Arabic-language Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, newspapers operating within the
constraints of tight Saudi censorship that do not challenge Saudi policies.
SRMG was chaired until he recently was
appointed minister of culture by Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin
Farhan Al Saud. An unknown member of the Saudi ruling family, Prince Bader made
headlines last year when he paid a record $450m for a Leonardo da Vinci
painting of Jesus Christ, allegedly as a proxy bidder for Prince Mohammed.
Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, a Saudi banker
with no track record in media acquisitions, last year bought a 30 percent stake
in the Independent. An executive of NCB Capital, a subsidiary of government-controlled
National Commercial Bank, Mr. Abuljadayel said at the time he was investing on
his personal account.
A cache of Saudi diplomatic cables leaked
in 2015 documented a pattern of Saudi chequebook diplomacy that aimed to buy
positive coverage of the kingdom by European, Middle Eastern and African media
who were encouraged to put “learned” Saudi guests on talk shows and counter
“media hostile to the kingdom.”
Cables by the late Saudi foreign minister,
Prince Saud al Faisal, suggested that Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, and another
Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, Al Hayat, refrain from criticizing Lebanon and
Saudi funding ranged from the bailout of
financially troubled media to donations, the purchase of thousands of
subscriptions, and all-expenses paid trips to the kingdom. It was often driven
by Saudi Arabia’s covert public diplomacy war with Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s near monopoly on staid
pan-Arabic media was broken in 1996 with the launch of Al Jazeera and its
free-wheeling, hard hitting reporting and talk shows. Al Jazeera’s disruption
of conservative, Arab state broadcasting prompted Waleed bin Ibrahim Al
Ibrahim, a brother in law of the late King Fahd, to launch Al Arabiya as an
The rise of Al Jazeera cemented a
realization in the kingdom that it needed to expand from print media into
broadcasting. The need for broadcasting was initially driven home six years
earlier when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Saudi authorities banned Saudi media from
reporting the invasion only to discover on the third day that Saudis were
getting their news from foreign media outlets, among which CNN.
The Saudi-Qatari battle for control of the
air waves escalated in the run-up to this year’s World Cup in Russia. With Al
Jazeera and beIN, the network’s sports franchise, blocked in the kingdom as
part of the 13-month-old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of
Qatar, Saudi Arabia initially turning a blind eye to beOutQ, a bootlegging
operation operating out of the kingdom that used a satellite that is co-owned
by the Saudi government.
Threatened by FIFA with punitive action,
Saudi Arabia began cracking down on beOutQ and said it welcomed legal action in
the kingdom being initiated by the world soccer body. At the same time, Saudi
Arabia explored ways to challenge beIN’s broadcasting rights.
The choice of languages for the Independent
websites suggests that SRMG sees the deal as strengthening its brand while
supporting the kingdom in its battles with Qatar and Iran and quest for
The launch of a Farsi website targets the
kingdom’s arch rival Iran. Leaving politics aside, Iranians, confronted with an
economic crisis that is being exasperated by harsh US sanctions, are unlikely
to subscribe or advertise on the website. The same is true for Saudi businesses
in the absence of diplomatic relations and given Saudi backing for the
The Independent’s Turkish website will have
to compete in a heavily populated media landscape that has largely been muzzled
by President Recep Tayeb Erdogan. The website’s significance lies in the fact
that Turkey supports Qatar in the spat that pits the Gulf state against Saudi
Arabia and its allies, maintains close ties to Iran, and challenges Saudi
regional ambitions in Palestine as well as the Horn of Africa.
In many ways, Urdu-speaking Pakistan, one
of the world’s most populous Muslim nations that borders on Iran, has long
supported the kingdom militarily, and is home to the world’s largest Shia
Muslim majority, could prove to be the most lucrative element of SRMG’s tie up
with the Independent.
In contrast to Turkey, Saudi Arabia enjoys
empathy in major segments of Pakistan’s population, hosts a sizeable Pakistani
community, has strong support among the country’s religious scholars as well as
ties to influential militants whom the military is seeking to ease into
mainstream politics, and funds religious media outlets.
At the bottom line, the SRMG-Independent
tie-up may be for the kingdom less about business and more about soft power.
“A channel is a very economical way to
influence people. Bang for your buck, it’s much cheaper than guns. It is about
controlling the discourse, and for Saudis about being in charge,” said Hugh
Miles, author of Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. Mr. Miles’
analysis applies as much to broadcasting as it does to online media.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute
for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast.
James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book
with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between
Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr.
Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting
Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and
the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom
I'm impressed, I must say. Very rarely do I come across a
blog that's both informative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you've hit
the nail on the head. Your blog is important; the issue is something that not
enough people are talking intelligently about