Andrew Hammond’s article on this in the new issue of Arab Media and Society (formerly TBS) covers some familiar ground on media ownership and the Jazeera-Arabiya struggle, but also highlights the ways in which transnational television has allowed Saudis to assert their interests via local proxies, or “hired pens,” who create an air of critical debate even as they remain beholden to their patrons.
Powered by vast petrodollar resources, thus began a concerted Saudi attempt to dominate the world of cable and satellite television media in the Arab world and steal the thunder of Egypt, once the leader of Arab media in the 1950s and 1960s with its Arab nationalist political ideology. Egypt’s once omnipotent “media of mobilization” (i‘lam ta‘bawi) gave way to Saudi Arabia’s “media of pacification”, or i‘lam tanwimi—a new soporific media of arguably far greater proportions and reach than anything Gamal Abdel-Nasser ever had, where entertainment helps put the political mind to sleep and politics is maintained within strict limits. If Abdel-Nasser wanted you fi-shari‘ (on the streets), Al Saud wants you fi-sala (in the living room).
To observe close-up how Saudi media influence operates I’ve chosen an episode from earlier this year in the endless mudfights and slanging matches that go on in the Arab media. In April Al Jazeera ran an in-depth interview with Heikal spread over two hour-long programs in which he discussed the regional political situation in light of the tension between Iran and the United States over Iran’s nuclear energy program and Saudi diplomatic efforts to regulate various regional political disputes, notably with the Mecca agreement in February 2007 that established a short-lived Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah. Heikal was direct in his criticism of the Saudi diplomacy led by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and intimate friend of the Bush family, in particular the idea that Iran should be considered an Arab enemy, and placed Saudi efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict within a context of providing the United States with a fig leaf for military action against Iran.
Heikal appeared to have hit the mark. Saudi media immediately and comprehensively swung into action to belittle Heikal. The strongest response came in an opinion piece by the editor of the Saudi daily al-Riyadh, Turki al-Sudairy. Al-Riyadh is owned by group of businessmen and thus officially independent, but it is in effect under the control of Riyadh governor Prince Salman. Journalists on the paper say Sudairy was obliged to write his rebuttal. The title of the article sets a tone which is typical of this kind of attack on the credibility of particularly effective critics—ajir li-ajir, which might be translated as “from one hireling/hired pen, to another.” The implication was that Heikal was paid to throw mud by a channel that is in turn also paid to throw mud. Sudairy accused Heikal of having been an official “state writer” in Nasser’s period, or the leading scribe in the state media who reveals to the masses and the world, through hints or more directly, the thoughts of the leadership. As former editor of al-Ahram, Egypt’s flagship state paper, this he undoubtedly was. But Sudairy said Heikal had subsequently mounted an unsuccessful bid to become Saudi Arabia’s official scribe, before finally finding a new home in Qatar. “Finally, Heikal found an opportunity to be a ‘state writer’ but in a statelet with hardly half a million people, when this mole of a country (habbat al-khal) Qatar made him its clownish official spokesperson … against the kingdom, which I can affirm does not pay him any attention,” Sudairy wrote. “This is Heikal—pay him and he’ll say anything … It’s difficult to accept any information from a hired pen who has not been deterred by the fact that he is now eighty years old. And what makes it worse is that he is a hired pen working for another hired pen.”
This is just one example of a phenomenon that consistently repeats itself in the Arab media and in particular with respect to Saudi Arabia. It demonstrates the power of the Saudi media to respond to criticism, its intolerance to criticism, and its use of non-Saudi writers—the coopted liberal intelligentsia—to deliver the counterpunches. Saudi influence reaches far and wide into many other areas. When Rafiq Hariri was Lebanon’s prime minister in 2003, the Lebanese government cut transmission of New TV over a programme that examined the effect of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on Saudi Arabia’s domestic political situation. When an Egyptian doctor was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in 1994 for complaining to the authorities over the alleged rape of his son by a Saudi schoolteacher, Egypt’s state-owned newspapers avoided the story for fear of offending the kingdom. Throughout the 1990s there were numerous instances of censorship or state prosecution of newspapers and journalists in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and GCC countries for unfavorable coverage of Saudi affairs.
Saudi Arabia has made an immense effort to control the flow of information in the Arab world and assure positive coverage of its politics and society, or often to assure no coverage at all. This effort has involved saturating the Arab viewer in Arab and Western entertainment in the form of dramas, quiz shows, comedies, films, and “soft religion” and only as much politics as is necessary. Saudi Arabia’s pan-Arab media empire promotes specific messages which present themselves as “liberal”, “reformist”, “moderate” and “modern”, but they are also conspicuously Washington-friendly and anti-al-Qa‘ida, Hizbullah, Iran or any other body presenting a challenge to the Pax Americana in the Arab world and the governments who form part of that constellation. This media presence has been constantly evolving; it was not until 2003 that the response to Al Jazeera came with Al Arabiya and by this time the pan-Arab media had become a useful tool for the ruling elite to challenge Islamists and promote a limited Saudi domestic agenda of openness which has involved co-opting as many “liberal intellectuals” as possible. While Al Jazeera has been the strongest challenger of this media empire, it will be interesting to see what impact the BBC’s new Arabic television channel, due to start later this year, will have on the scene.
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