What brought the Russians, Australians, and Americans to the Arab media scene? Why did the Arab world’s news industry suddenly become so important and economically competitive for foreign private media institutions, after the market had been practically invisible to them in the decades prior? These and other questions are spurred by the entrance of foreign media into the Arab world in recent years.
Unlike the branches of state-owned entities, such as the BBC Arabic and Al-Hurra, which carried with them the motives of foreign states and hints of post-colonialism, the most recent western media outlets to enter the Arab world’s fray are private institutions. The latter’s entrance also did not come about spontaneously, but through partnerships with official or semi-official Arab institutions.
The first private institution to form an independent branch in the Arab world was Sky News, a British channel under the umbrella of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s empire, which owns, among others, President Donald Trump’s favorite, Fox News. British Sky Broadcasting (BskyB) and Skeikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s Abu Dhabi Media and Investment Corporation struck a deal for joint ownership with the Arab branch of the media company.
The deal was signed between deputy prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mansour, and chairman of the BSkyB’s board of directors, James Murdoch (Rupert’s son). James quit his position two years later due after it was revealed media organizations affiliated with the Murdoch empire hacked the phones of celebrities, politicians, and members of the British royal family. His departure was motivated by frustration with the media empire’s editorial policies, catalyzed specifically with its coverage of Australia’s bushfires.
The second foreign organization to enter the Arab world was The Independent. The odd thing about the Independent’s accession to the Arab media market was that at the time, it was unprofitable and had shuttered its print operations two years earlier, begging the question, why would it choose that moment to expand its operations to four new editions in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Urdu?
Particularly peculiar was the timing of the expansion, which came directly after the purchase of 30% of the newspaper’s shares by the Saudi investor Sultan Mohammed Abuljadayel in 2018. The purchase was made with companies registered in the Solomon Islands in an attempt to conceal the real buyer. Nonetheless, the purchase created controversy in media and government circles in the UK over concerns that Saudi Arabia would exercise its editorial powers over British media outlets, with some deeming the sale of the newspaper’s shares to be a detriment to public interest. However, a court case was never filed by the government in British courts.
According to a BBC report, while Abuljadayel was not “a member of the Saudi royal family or government,” given that Saudi Arabia was “a theocracy where all roads lead back to the House of Saud, the links between Abuljadayel and the monarchy … will now come under the spotlight.”
The last media organization to enter the Arab market was the US-owned Bloomberg, under a deal between the Saudi Research and Marketing Group and Bloomberg in 2018.
Buying the trademark does not buy professionalism
Despite sharing the same brand name, the Arabic versions of these international papers generally did not adhere to professional and ethical journalistic standards. Though lofty promises were made by the management of these new Arabic publications to maintain the standards which marked their counterparts, any optimism about the quality of these publications were quickly crushed once they started publishing.
For example, when Independent Arabia was launched in early 2019, its editor in chief, Odhwan al-Ahmari, pledged to its readers that its coverage would be independent, objective, and adhere to the highest standards of journalism. However, in the two years since its launch, its coverage has been anything but.
In a particularly dark moment for the paper, an Al Jazeera investigation revealed the involvement of al-Ahmari himself in the promotion of fake news against Qatar as part of the Gulf Crisis—in a clear contradiction of standards of objectivity, accuracy, and the verification of sources. Meanwhile, the Telegraph deemed the newspaper to involved in the promotion of Saudi propaganda in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Later in June 2020, the newspaper determined without a doubt that “the source of COVID-19 was confirmed to be one of the labs in Wuhan, China.” This was a particularly revelatory column, especially given that no other credible outlet had published this prior—even more interesting was the fact that the revelation was not attributed to any source besides the journalist himself.
As for Sky News Arabia, the chairman of the board, Sultan al-Jaber, proudly boasted that the organization has an editorial board which would ensure that the channel presents balanced and accurate coverage. However, the editorial board seems to have had a number of lapses in judgement, such as when they reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan requested asylum in Germany during the attempted coup in Turkey.
The channel later angered its Arab audiences when it erased the word “Palestine” via photoshop from an artwork that appeared in the background of an interview with the Lebanese professor Fredrick Maatouq. Just a few days before, the channel broadcast an exclusive interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel. The channel not only failed to spell Netanyahu correctly, but more importantly, did have any representation of the Palestinian side, leaving the presenter, Nadim Kotiech, to sharply criticize the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Behind the scenes
During a public event in 2019, Al Ahmari said that the Independent Arabia is not focused on the news, but rather the subtleties of the news and what occurs behind the scenes. If we are to apply the same logic to the launch of the four new editions of the newspaper and analyze what might have occurred “behind the scenes,” the launch might indicate political interests, rather than economic returns, given the languages and audiences targeted. What is the expected economic benefit from The Independent Persian, given that its Iranian target audience is under exhaustive western sanctions? Why The Independent Urdu, rather than Hindi, if India’s GDP is ten times larger than Pakistan?
As for Sky news HQ, the success of the news organization since the appointment of its current editor in chief, Angelos Frangopoulos, in 2018, is contingent upon right-wing coverage that vilifies Muslims and immigrants, climate issues, liberal media organizations and homosexuality. The tone of the show was set two years ago after the channel hosted a notorious Neo-Nazi figure on its talk show, leading the Australian Ministry of Transport to ban the channel from its metro station TV screens. Hence, it could be just a matter of time before Sky News Arabia takes a similar right-wing bent.
The idea of franchising global trademarks in the Arab market might be simpler than starting from scratch, as riding off the reputation of the global trademark can allow Arab channels to overcome the formidable barriers to entry present in the media market. However, while reputable names might project an aura of professionalism and exude credibility, these outlets’ continued violations of professional and journalistic standards, in addition to the promotion of propaganda, will doom these organizations into irrelevance and leave them to be little more than pawns of regional powers with nice logos.