by Zeinab Hawi, Al-Akhbar English
After several delays, new TV station Al-Arab TV will finally go live in early February 2015. The station will be on the air at a time of intense media polarization, representing a continuation of the Saudi-Qatari conflict. However, the station promises to be neutral and to focus on economic issues. It could be said, however, that Al-Arab TV will be similar to the Al-Arabiya model.
The countdown has begun for the launching of Al-Arab news channel in February 2015. The station is owned by the Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, according to an announcement made by its chief executive officer Fahd al-Sukait yesterday during a press conference held in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. In the meantime, an extensive advertising campaign is underway featuring the channel’s logo, which bears a striking similarity to the logo of the Rotana channels, in green and golden colors.
The advertisement is problematic and poses a lot of questions, especially with Sukait’s emphasis on the satellite channel’s “neutrality” and “proximity to the people” emphasized in its motto, ‘the story that interests you.’ Promoting the idea that the station will not advocate a certain political ideology but will instead focus on people’s issues and problems and conduct itself in a professional manner and defining itself as a “modern round-the-clock news channel” are all problematic assertions. Of course, these claims could very well be far from the truth. The fact that the channel is based in Bahrain has political implications intertwined with media and economic overtones. There are many reasons for choosing Bahrain, the most important of which is the close relationship between Alwaleed bin Talal and Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, in addition to promoting the idea that the Gulf kingdom is stable and safe. Its geographical proximity to Saudi Arabia means the channel will further penetrate this market at the economic and media levels.
Al-Arab TV, which seeks to promote its owner’s public image, will try to create a new style different from the stereotypical Gulf media that dominates the Arab public airwaves. Al Jazeera was the only game in town at one point before Al-Arabiya came along as a competitor and an attempt to break the hegemony of the first. As the Qatari channel (Al Jazeera) lost its luster and given the Saudi channel’s (Al-Arabiya) blind political bias, the need arose for Al-Arab TV. The newly-born channel enters the fray of the Saudi-Qatari conflict, especially with the launching of Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed in its electronic and paper format designed to give Qatari media a boost while awaiting the launching of its TV station in the near future.
A limited margin of freedom will be given to the channel’s director, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who will use it gradually at this stage according to an informed source, who said the new channel is going to be neutral, at least in the beginning. It will even host Bahraini opposition members, breaking the homogeneity that has characterized Saudi media for years. A week ago, the Bahraini king’s media advisor, Nabil al-Hamr, visited the Bahrain World Trade Center in Manama, home to the new channel’s headquarters. Hamr is known for his animosity and demonization of the Bahraini opposition, including the so-called moderate opposition. In the end, one can assume that Al-Arab TV’s general direction will not deviate too far from what Al-Arabiya currently broadcasts in terms of politics and hot-button issues in the region, especially when it comes to Syria and Lebanon.
The main focus will be on economics given the partnership between Al-Arab TV and the US financial news channel Bloomberg Television. Long hours will be spent discussing market economics. There will be six or seven hours of daily coverage that will follow the Saudi and Gulf markets that goes into the details of an individual’s economic life and provides them with the best services in that regard. All this coverage is a way to spotlight the economic “liberal” persona of its Saudi billionaire owner. Economically, it is this liberalism that the new channel will try to consecrate, in addition to a slight element of “openness” to opposition views.
The channel’s journalists will include women like Iraqi journalist Laila al-Shaikhli who resigned from Al Jazeera and who will be the star journalist at Al-Arab TV. She will have two programs, one is a detailed Arabic news bulletin and the other, called al-Mashhad (The Scene), will be an analysis-based talk show. Shaikhli’s husband, Jasim al-Azzawi, will read the news bulletins. Saudi youth will have their share with a program called Mughairu al-Loba (Game Changers) which will highlight achievements by young people through projects they started that changed the fields of business and commerce.
Al-Arab TV might not be able to compete with its counterparts. But it is certainly an unmatched heavyweight at the technological level as it has incorporated state of the art specifications and programing in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, Al-Arab TV was granted an award for the “most beautiful studio and equipment” by Broadcast Pro Middle East. With this technological and economic momentum and its margin of freedom, will the new channel be able to put itself on the map of satellite channels? More importantly, how is it going to implement the neutrality it proclaims?