The Al Waleed-Murdoch Middle Eastern connection raises Arab fears

Thanks to my Twitter friends, I’ve just jumped into this interesting Zawya’s article (based on AFP)  “Murdoch’s pan-Arab foray seen as ‘Trojan horse’ in Egypt”.

The article starts like that:

“The tie-up between Arab entertainment giant Rotana and pro-Israel media mogul Rupert Murdoch is viewed in Egypt not only with suspicion but as signalling the decline of Arab film and art heritage”.

I’m actually more surprised for this article coming from AFP rather than for its actual contents.

Arabs now fearing that this alliance would bring “normalisation” to Arab-Israeli relations and would result into a benefit for Israel  frankly looks a bit naif.

Murdoch and Al Waleed have been doing business together for a long time. The Saudi Prince is actually the only non- family member to own a stake in Murdoch’s News Corp capital (see 23 January post on this blog).

In 1997 the Time reports  Al Waleed stating that:

“I want to concentrate on communications, technology, entertainment and news. This is the future. News Corp. is the only truly global news and entertainment company.”

“His business investments in the Middle East, for example, provide him with direct access to Arab heads of state, on whom he may have a moderating influence, since many of Alwaleed’s international partners are Jewish and support Israel. “Religion has never been a barrier between us,” says Four Seasons Hotels Inc. CEO Isadore Sharp. “He mentioned once that we have similar value systems and moral principles.”
Al Waleed and Murdoch have been involved in a long time business friendship. Why are Arabs so scared of Murdoch bringing pro- Israeli arguments in the Region now that he owns a stake in Rotana?
Didn’t they know that the Prince has been directly involved in News Corp. for many years?
Why haven’t they questioned him before?
Al Waleed is a smart businessman, he has investments in major sectors of Western economies (hotels, entertainment, technology, etc). He is also smart in the Middle East, where at the same time he sponsors “liberal” pop channels like Rotana and Islamic entertainment stations like Al Risala TV.
Once I attended a media forum in Dubai, many years ago, and the Prince was there. At the time,  Muslim riots were exploding everywhere in France, particularly in Paris suburbs. The Prince said he was not happy about the way Fox News (which belongs to News Corp) was covering the events, being it anti-Muslims biased. So he just picked up the phone and called his long-time friend in order to “adjust” the coverage.
(as the AFP take reported by Zawya reminds: “When in 2005 Alwaleed was reported as saying he had influenced how Fox News depicted rioting in heavily Muslim suburbs in France, the conservative Accuracy in Media group called for an investigation”).
It’s a funny story and Arabs should bear this in mind when they start pointing at a pro-Israeli (or anti-Arab) conspiracy.
Is this starting only because Murdoch is finally coming himself to Region?
Did everybody in the Arab world really ignore that Al Waleed was doing business with Murdoch since long time ago?
Were they so “naif” to ignore the fact that, by owning a significant stake in News Corp., the Prince could have actually an influence himself on its editorial strategy instead of being  passively influenced by it?

Business is business, and sometime this is true also in the Arab world. Al Waleed has been working with Murdoch for many years in order to grow his commercial interests in Western profitable media industries. Being Murdoch a pro-Israeli or not, this doesn’t matter to Al Waleed so much. They are both businessmen in a global economy.
That would be great if Arab journalists and intellectuals would once focus on the deeper political-economical implications of this deal, perform the duties of  investigative journalism and do analysis, instead of going back always to the same old story of “conspiracy” which mostly helps maintaining a passive and not constructive attitude in the Arab world.
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Al Waleed and Murdoch’s honeymoon in the Middle East

14th January -as many financial newspapers report- the Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal and the Australian media moghul Rupert Murdoch  met up in New York to discuss about the future of their investments, particularly in the media sector. The potential deal between the two businessmen seems to be related to Al Waleed’s TV giant, Rotana Media, who Newscorp is told to be willing to acquire 10% later this month.

Al Waleed and Murdoch are old friends and business partners, as the Saudi Prince is the only non-member of the Murdoch family to own a consistent stake of 7% in the family jewel, media giant NewsCorp. They have also been long time friends with Silvio Berlusconi, at the time (1995) when Al Waleed was advised by the French Tunisian businessman Tarek Ben Ammar to invest in Berlusconi’s Mediaset conglomerate. Now the honeymoon between Berlusconi and Murdoch is clearly over due to the fight and fierce competition over the Italian pay TV market, but Murdoch seems to be still in love with Al Waleed, the trusted friend and ally of long time ago.

Al Waleed is reported to have rescued Murdoch at the end of the 90s when Newscorp was facing some difficulties. At the time Al Waleed’s Kingdom Holding both a significant stake in the company. Now Murdoch is told to give the favour back since the Prince’s big investment in Citigroup has resulted to be a big problem due to the financial slowdown, even if he is reported to believe that “the worst is behind“.

Murdoch is also truly interested in the Arab Television market which has got lot of potential, should the two major problems it is undergoing be solved. Those problems are piracy and lack of advertising investments for a potential market of more than 300 millions people sharing the same language.

Rotana Media,fully owned by the Prince, owns the TV rights to more than 2,000 Arabic movies together with the world’s largest Arabic language music library, according to Zawya.com. This is a great potential for a Region that loves music and entertainment, but it is at the same time largely affected by piracy and copyright infringement. This huge library is not profitable yet. But Murdoch’s expertise with piracy fighting all over the world could result in a great help for Murdoch.

At the same time, an investor like him could bring much more “trust” in the Region, and multinationals advertisers could be less “worried” to put their money in a black hole, where no professional trusted independent measurement systems have been established so far.

Rotana already hosts News Corp.’s Fox channels in Saudi Arabia via its television network and it controls the majority stake of LBCSat, the Lebanese entertainment channel who is higly followed by Saudis and Gulf people, the richest part of the Arab market.

The Murdoch-Rotana connection happens during a very peculiar time of Arab Television markerts, when also the two biggest pay TV operators, Showtime Arabia and Orbit have decided to merge. Concentration of media capitals seem to have started even in a Region like the Middle East which has been mostly touched by the opposite phenomenon, i.e. proliferation of channels and media outputs.

But time has come as the Murdoch-Al Waleed deal clearly shows.

Harsher fight to piracy and copyright infrigement together with new business models of individual media consumption are to be expected even in the Arab world.

First theatre play hold yesterday in Saudi Arabia after 50 years

A real revolution was happening yesterday in Saudi Arabia. A theatre play was represented in the Saudi capital Ryad for the first time after 50 years in front of government authorities.  Religious ulama consider cinema and theatre to be against Islamic sharia law.  Prince Waleed Bin Talal, the media moghul who owns stakes in global media organisations like Murdochs NewsCorp and controls the successful  Arab tv network Rotana, has proposed several times to open a movie theatre in the country but never succeeded in this.

Yesterday event is unprecedented and very interesting in the perspective of the evolution of modern Saudi societies. Lorenzo Trombetta from Italian news agency Ansamed reports about the event here:

“For the first time in almost 50 years a theatre play was performed in front of government officials in Saudi Arabia: on Friday in Riyadh the Theatre Festival was opened in the presence of government members, while the supreme religious authority of the country continues to stigmatise film and theatre as ”breaking Islamic law”. For World Theatre Day, in which Saudi Arabia is participating for the first time, the curtain of the Saudi-Arabian Culture and Art Association (Asca) were raised for the first time in 49 years in the presence of a mixed audience, men and women, including ”high representatives of the Culture Ministry” reported the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, published in London and owned by Saudi prince Khaled bin Sultan, on its front page. The play was performed by the actors of Diadema (al-Iklil), preparations have been in the news in the past days ”after threats and attempts to sabotage” preparations ”carried out by unknown persons against the theatre group”. The religious authorities in Saudi Arabia oppose artistic expression: Grand mufti, Abd al Aziz al Shaykh, called theatre an activity that ”breaks Islamic law”. Two years ago a fight broke out between viewers and actors during the performance of a comedy which showed ”the contradictions of a society which is considered to be moderate by the West, but which in fact is subjected to religious extremists”. The few (film) theatres that are tolerated are still rigorously divided into stalls for men and a balcony for women and the performance of comedies, usually by men only, is only allowed during Ramadan. Last year, seven of the ten theatre plays on the bill were performed and directed by men, two by children. Women appeared in just one play according to Najah al-Usaymi of the local on-line daily Arab News. The last show performed in Riyadh in the presence of authorities goes back to 1960. Since then only small private cultural circles and universities organised shows. ”With this event we want to re-launch Saudi theatre” said the vice director of Asca, Muhammad Rassis, adding: ”We are children of today and we talk about today. We have nothing to do with the past”. (ANSAmed).