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.

Virtual Islam is Ramadan’s next “big thing”

Holy month of Ramadan 2009 is about to start (around this saturday) and the media battle has already begun in the Arab-Islamic world. This year is not only about musalsalat (soap operas) that are usually Ramadan’s special, having all Arab countries and TV stations fighting for the best (and more taboos-breaking) fiction.

Virtual worlds and avatars are officially entering the Ramadan media scene, being an effective tool to reach out to Muslim youngsters. That’s probably why Sheikh Ahmad Al-Ghamdi, the Mecca director of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Saudi Arabia’s vice police), has decided to deliver a Ramadan sermon from a virtual minbar in Second Life (SL). The sermon -entitled “Ramadan, oh youth!”- will be delivered tonight from a virtual mosque on the Middle East Island, a fictional SL island. Saudi officials are professionals in starting to blame a media and then using it to reach out a certain audience. They have been blaming television for years, at the same time financing the most powerful entertainment oriented private TV channels. But now Sheikh Al-Ghamdi has told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that new tools of communication are part of God’s gifts to mankind.
The sermon to be broadcast on the Middle East Island is not the first time Islam has been mixed with virtual worlds. Islam online, the famous organisation headed by Sheikh Al-Qaradawi (Al Jazeeras top preacher and host of “Sharia wal hayat” TV programme), purchased a SL island in 2007 where you can perform a virtual Hajj. Young generations of Muslisms around the world – like the fashionable bloggers’ avatars on Muslimness.com – are welcoming those kind of experiments, adding some interesting “remixes” like this picture of a virtual Muslim Darth Vader and a sexy young Muslim girl in a mosque “well, sometimes you tend to take that lightly, since it is a *virtual*world” says Madiha M.K.The Diva one of the hosts of Muslimness.

me and ashour!_001

(picture via Muslimness.com)

For those who are interested in this topic there is an interesting research by Dancing Ink funded by Richard Lounsbery Foundation. “Understanding Islam through Virtual worlds” has been conducted in SL by Dancing Ink Productions’ Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts, senior fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Different digital versions of the findings (including some You Tube videos shot in SL) are available here: http://dancinginkproductions.com/projects/understanding-islam-through-virtual-worlds/.

Al Jazeera and the Lebanese elections: a missed opportunity

I’m still wondering why at 10,30 pm Lebanon time, when the entire world (OK, maybe not the entire world but the entire Arab world) was following the only true competitive elections in the entire Region, Al Jazeera was broadcasting Sheikh Qaradawi’s programme Sharia wal hayat, an episode focused on cinema and Islamic religion, i.e. what’s “haram” and “halal” in art. The topic sounded more than surrealistic, while all the Lebanese parties (including the Islamic one, Hezbollah, which is one of the best in the Region in terms of media strategy, they produce everything, from TV to radio to films to videogames) were pretty much involved in showing the first projections on the results, hosting talk shows, debating on the Internet. Sharia wal hayat is one of the flagship programmes in Al Jazeera schedule and Qaradawi is more than a Sheikh, he is an institution, probably untouchable, but I am sure this is not the only reason for having this weak coverage of Lebanese elections. Even during the day -the election day, yesterday sunday 7th of June- while Al Arabiya was hosting talk shows featuring Lebanese and non-Lebanese writers, journalists, political analysts, Al Jazeera was giving very few airtime to the elections, being much more focused on issues like Iran’s upcoming elections and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Al Jazeera almost ignored the fact that Lebanon was about to vote in what was considered an historical elections, despite the fact that the channel bureau in Beirut is one of the best the network has, being his manager Ghassan Bin Jeddu one of the most prominent journalist of the station.  Moreover, during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon Al Jazeera provided an excellent and extensive choice.  It’s clear that not to cover the Lebanon 2009 elections has been a choice, not a mistake for the most famous Arabic all news channel. So why Al Jazeera has not covered the elections properly? Wasn’t this election “breaking news” as it should have been? Were there yesterday other more relevant breaking news to be followed?

I don’t have the answer to these questions, unfortunately. But of course Lebanon was a breaking news, in journalistic terms, and particularly for an Arab media it should have been so. Al Jazeera’s competitor, Al Arabiya, has devoted much more airtime to the electoral marathon, during all the election day and even today.

Too easy to say that Al Jazeera -closer to Hezbollah’s position- and Al Arabiya -closer to the Hariri family’s position, an historical ally of Saudi Arabia (which controls Al Arabiya and all the MBC group) were playing their Lebanese  allies’  interest. In this case, Al Jazeera should have known before the results of the elections and devoted less airspace to the story, just cause it knew before that  Hezbollah was going not to win? I don’t trust conspiracy theories. I just think that, as my colleague and Arab media analyst Augusto Valeriani suggested yesterday, “Al Jazeera has some difficulties in finding a new role in the post-Bush world”.  It was much more easier to have an enemy to blame being able to mobilise the people around this common enemy.

Obama is not Bush and Al Jazeera knows it. We will be all waiting to see this new, post-Bush Al Jazeera and its upcoming editorial choice.

Al Jazeera in the past few years has given its best by reporting conflicts and wars like the Lebanese one in 2006 and the Gaza attack of 2008, not to go too far in time. The Lebanon war coverage, for example, was great and very professional and yesterday I wish I could have seen the same professional journalists Al Jazeera has got in Lebanon reporting not a war, but a peaceful election, at least once.

Being used to watch Sayyed Nasrallah‘s speeches in a great Arabic language on Al Jazeera I was indeed surprised to have seen that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, despite broadcasting Sayyed’s speech tonight, were interrupting it and not broadacasting it entirely. I understand why Al Arabiya has done so but, again, it’s very hard for me to understand why Al Jazeera,  which has always supported Sayyed, has now changed its view. Even worst, if we consider that Nasrallah‘s speech tonight was an exercise of diplomacy, not a call out to war. @mikewhillis wrote the best Twitter on this: “Nasrallah’s speech sounds like it could’ve been written by Obama‘s staff. It puts M14 in a tough position”. True. Nasrallah said: we acknowledge their victory with democratic spirit. Mabrouk, ya Sayyed, very clever.

It”s easier when you have a common enemy or a war to mobilise your audience at…what will be the future of Al Jazeera in the post-Bush, new Obama era? I hope to see a new Al Jazeera soon, at the forefront of news reporting as we’ve always seen.

War on words. Arab media on Obama’s speech in Cairo..and the winner is: Twitter!

Just finished a couple of hours marathon split between TV and computer screen to follow Obamas first live speech addressed to the Muslim world from a Muslim-majority country, Egypt. I’ve tried to follow the speech live on the Internet, through the WhiteHouse’s YouTube channel , following at the same time reactions on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

Of course the two most important Arab media have a very different view on President Obama‘s words, even if it’s not always through words that they express this view. Take Al Jazeera for example:  since the very end of Obama’s talk in Cairo has started broadcasting two different feature stories. First one is what’s now happening in Qalqiliya. While Obama was mentioning Palestine and Israel and  the right of both to leave in peace and  have each one its own state, the reality of Palestine is that Palestinians are killing each others in internal fights. Al Jazeera did not say openly that this internal fights are US (and Europe)’s fault, cause they have never recognised Hamas‘ right to govern Palestine after they won the elections.   But the mere fact of showing the images of what’s happening in Palestine, right after Obama spoke of Palestine and peace, is eloquent and doesnt’ need more words to be said. Also right now, in the news bullettin, Al Jazeera is presenting as headline news Obama’s speech in Cairo as first, and Qalqiliya as second. Do we need more words than those justaxposed images to understand what Al Jazeera thinks about Obama?

On the other hand, Al Arabiya. They have a very different tone from Al Jazeera, quiet and very analytic. However, all the analysis are positive. The sheikh who spoke from Saudi Arabia was very optimistic and labelled Obama’s language as “new language” (at the same time, an Egyptian guest on Al Jazeera was saying exactly the contrary: “same old language” used by Bush, words like “civilization”). Generally speaking, even after Obama’s speech was over, Al Arabiya went on (and it’s still going on) with analysis, collecting different views, etc. Do you remember who was the first Arab channel to get an interview with President Obama? Well, that’s the answer to Al Arabiya’s coverage of today.

Obama mentioned many points in his speech, but which ones are picked up by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, even if with different angles? Number one, the Palestinian issue. Reasonable. Without finding a solution to this, the other points are useless for the Arabs. Number two,  religious tolerance and minorities. Number three, women issue. Somebody on Al Jazeera also remarked the importance of the educational point mentioned by Obama. Good. But who between them would have stayed a bit more on democracy in the Arab world? Obama mentioned the need to open to democracy, not through wars -but not even with internal coercion-. He was not that bold and didnt’ give the names, but -guess what- this is a whole chapter rather than a simple point for Arab media to open the discussion. I am hoping that at least Faysal Qassem will pick up this point and make a whole episode on this! If not him,  then who?!

While zapping in between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya during Obama’s speech and trying to pick up the nuances in their coverage, I had hundreds of Tweets pulling out from my computer screen. Including people watching the speech from Israel, giving their opinions, translating things from Hebrew.  Twitters written by Elizrael were very helpful.  Neither Al Jazeera nor Arabiya were ready to pick up this energy and different views coming from Twitter live. Projects like Meedan of live translation Arabic-English and viceversa were helping. People were helping to understand, through Global Voices community. An incredible compilation of information, discussions, live translation, different opinions.

Obama spoke, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya listened. Twitter (and the Internet) won.

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).

Arab media battle over Gaza summit(s)

What we saw yesterday on Arab satellite TV screens reflects the chaos which reigns in Arab streets and the controversy who rules all the current relations amongst the Arab countries. Yesterday Doha summit was boycotted  by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two very important players in the Gaza crisis. And not only: two of the top media “owners” of the Arab world. The third is, of course, Qatar, the country who hosted the summit hoping to play the same diplomatic role it played in the Lebanon crisis coming out with the “Doha agreements”. But this time, Qatar was not able to present itself as the mediator. Egypt and Saudi Arabia didn’t go to Doha, and Saudi controlled media -like Dubai based Al Arabiya- were focusing much more on the importance of the Arab foreign ministers meeting to be held in Kuwait next monday. While, of course, Al Jazeera was covering extensively the summit -and often splitting the screen in two, the Doha summit on one side, the Gaza chaos on the other side- focusing on its relevance, as underlined by the BBC monitoring.

And while Al Jazeera was giving lot of relevance to the fact that Qatar has suspended economic and political ties with Israel -being before one of the few Arab countries to have an official Israeli representative  in Doha- , the rival Al Arabiya called this suspension as “temporary”. The relations between Saudi and Qatar, which a while ago seemed to have been restored and improved, now seem to be back to the past. And media are reflecting these divisions once again.

Arab media coverage of Israeli attacks on Gaza

Watching today different  Arab Tv stations coverage of Israeli attacks on Gaza could give us a completely different idea of the crisis. Al Jazeera has got correspondents everywhere, from Gaza to Ramallah to Jerusalem to Beirut where lots of “action” was happening. Screen was divided into four smaller windows and the correspondents live and in parallel were asked questions by the presenter from Doha, Qatar. Most of them were wearing war helmets and the atmosphere was very dramatic. Emotional participations, lots of words referring to “martyrs” (sorry for this translation, which I am sure doesn’t reflect the exact meaning of the original Arabic word “shuhada”), lots of pics featuring children blessed, deaths, blood everywhere. A promo, edited by the Doha headquarters, “advertising” the war coverage as it was the latest war movie coming from Hollywood. But these are not special effects, this is the real tragedy happening live in Gaza.

On the other side, Al Arabiya, broadcasting from Dubai, was also talking about “martyrs”, but in a colder, more “neutral” way as it was something more distant (nobody here in the Arab Region could prevent himself to use this word, it’s not a matter of “being professional” as we wrongly believe in the West, it’s a matter of belonging to a culture and speaking the local language). Al Arabiya also has got a “promo” of its own war coverage, like Al Jazeera. But more as a “European movie” rather than Hollywood, something more sober in way. Still lots of deaths, but lin a way,more aseptic. The real paradox is that, while Al Jazeera shows correspondents with helmets, Al Arabiya’s cameras are focused live on Muscat, where the Gulf summit is going on (being originally something planned for economy, then turned urgently in a debate about a common Gulf position to be taken before the Arab League summit to be held after tomorrow in Cairo). Cameras are following the king of Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiya belongs to a prince businessman who is a member of the Saudi royal family), walking silently in Muscat followed by courts dignitaries dressed in the traditional Gulf long dresses. They walk in a perfect silent, live on Arabiya cameras. And there is nothing more paradoxical that this silent compared to the noise of the war happening live just on the other side of the Arab remote control.