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Wed 21 Sep 2011 02:30 PM

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Alwaleed’s new box of tricks

Sky, Al Jazeera and now Prince Alwaleed are jostling for a slice of the Arab media market. Who will come out on top?

Alwaleed’s new box of tricks
Prince Alwaleed has joined forces with Bloomberg chairman Peter Grauer in launching Alarab news

Anyone who has ever been in the presence of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed always remarks on one thing: his fascination with the news. Whether it’s at his fabulous Kingdom Resort in the Saudi desert, his offices at Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, on board his private jumbo jet or his magnificent yacht off the coast of France, no meeting with the prince is ever complete without the presence of a bank of television screens in front of him.

The world’s richest, most powerful and most famous Arab likes to know what’s happening across the globe, constantly flicking through a number of news and business channels. Come next year, he will have one more to look at: his own. Alarab is an independent 24-hour news channel from Kingdom Holding Company and the Rotana group which will target the world’s 300 million native Arabic speakers. The channel, which was officially announced last week, will launch in the next year.

In a statement released last Tuesday, Kingdom Holding Company said: “Alarab will focus editorially on the important shifts taking place across the Arab world with an emphasis on freedom of speech and freedom of press.

“Furthermore, it will uphold the principle of free transfer of information as well as, objective, balanced and credible reporting. The news channel will cover the latest developments around the world and will also highlight political, social and economic issues in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.”

The Saudi journalist, Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, will be managing the new channel, however, the location of its headquarters and main broadcast centre has not yet been announced. Prince Alwaleed said Manama, Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Beirut are all being considered.

Given the prince’s huge business interests, it’s no surprise that a large part of the channel will be devoted to business news. For this, the firm has tied up with the international financial news powerhouse, Bloomberg.

Under the terms of the partnership, Bloomberg will support the creation of five-hours of financial and economic news programming every day. Bloomberg-branded business reports will air within Alarab’s daily coverage with reports from the Middle East and North Africa markets as well as a weekly roundup of global financial news. It will also feature regular segments on Arab business leaders from the kingdom, the Gulf region and the international Arabic speaking world.

Bloomberg’s media group CEO, Andy Lack, describes the partnership as the ideal fit for both the prince and the news network. “We bring a credibility and objectivity and the prince — who is fiercely independent — wants this channel to be seen that way. So when he was looking for a partner Bloomberg looked ideal to him for just that reason,” he tells Arabian Business.

“It was of a mutual benefit that we brought each other,” he continues. “The prince brings an understanding and a focus in the region that is unique and we bring that global business and financial news acumen that is unparalleled.”

It’s a view Prince Alwaleed shares. “The Arab world is interested in the fields of business, employment, economic development, and is focused on prosperity and growth. Our alliance with Bloomberg and its credible source of financial and economic data, together with its extensive media experience, will provide the Alarab news channel with a strong and comprehensive economic platform to accurately cover Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Arab world,” he said in a statement.

Bloomberg will employ around four to five full time staff who will assist in the production of the channel’s economic and business coverage and draw on its network of 2,300 journalists in 146 news bureaus across 72 countries. “[The material that] all of our reporters in the region and around the world — wherever the news and events that Bloomberg is covering on a global basis — will always be available to the channel and exclusively to the region. Our colleagues will of course be developing local material and local content with our partners,” says Lack.

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While Alarab’s Bloomberg content will be exclusive to the region it may be screen across the rest of the world, says Lack. “It will be exclusive in the region, the content itself may be seen outside the region because it’s global business news and financial data which other regions, whether its Europe or Asia will be interesting in as well.”

So what can we expect from the new channel? Both parties have emphasised the fact it will be providing transparent and non-bias news. “Going into it [transparency] was a precondition for Bloomberg and a precondition for the prince. We would not have been aligned properly if that were not the case,” explains Lack.

“Bloomberg is well known for its clarity of purpose in this matter and you’ll see no change in the way we operate here in the Middle East than any differently than anywhere else in the world. We seek to bring our transparency and objectivity to these markets the way we have to every market that we’ve operated in and that’s the best antidote to the challenges that sometimes censorship seem to pose in these areas,” he adds.

The launch of Alarab will no doubt receive praise across the Arab world for pushing cultural boundaries but rest assured, getting Prince Alwaeed’s attention come 2012 just got that much harder.

Sky News Arabia

It surprised no-one when Rupert Murdoch announced that he was jumping on the back of the Arab news content bandwagon last year.

His new channel, Sky News Arabia, will be a 50/50 joint venture between British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) and the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation, an investment firm headed up by HH Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the UAE.

Sky News Arabia will be based in twofour54 free zone in Abu Dhabi, and will be aided by a series of bureaus across the world, with content fed from an estimated 180 ‘multimedia’ journalists.

Its chairman is Sultan Al Jaber, who is also the managing director and CEO of Masdar, as well as retaining a position as a senior advisor to Mubadala. Other directorial appointees are chief financial officer of BSkyB Andrew Griffith, head of Sky News John Ryley, and Abdulhamid Saeed, managing director of First Gulf Bank. Sky News Arabia’s director of news is Nart Bouran, formerly director of television at Reuters.

The channel, which is set to broadcast to an estimated 50 million households across the region, will directly compete against CNBC Arabiya, which opened its latest bureau in Bahrain at the end of last year. Like CNBC, Sky News Arabia will be hoping that its Arabic language channel will complement the services already offered by its English channel.

While details of the launch are so far relatively limited, Sky News Arabia has confirmed that despite the intense speculation focused on Murdoch as a result of the phone-hacking scandal in the UK, broadcasting will start next spring.

The scandal implicated one of the Newscorp boss’ British tabloid newspapers, and effectively prevented Murdoch from buying a majority stake in BSkyB.

Not that Murdoch is a stranger to Arabic news; Newscorp already owns just under fifteen percent of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s Rotana Media Group — a major distributor of Arabic-language films.

The impending launch gained further momentum earlier this month, when the channel confirmed that it had hired EVS to supply production and playout platforms, while Harris will supply solutions for part of Sky News Arabia’s playout automation.