Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat—From its beginnings in London in the early 1990s, the MBC Group has grown into the preeminent media conglomerate in the Middle East. Now based in Dubai, it is known for its mix of popular Middle Eastern and international programming, as well as news coverage, carried mainly on the 24-hour Al-Arabiya channel.
In addition to being the first broadcaster in the region to offer free-to-air satellite television, the Group has also launched the region’s first video on demand service, the first free-to-air 24-hour news channel, the first women’s interest channel, and the first free-to-air HD channels.
Asharq Al-Awsat’s editor-in-chief sat down with Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, the Group’s chairman and CEO, on the sidelines of this year’s Arab Media Forum in Dubai to talk about his vision for MBC and its content, as well as the state of media in the Arab world.
Asharq Al-Awsat: MBC was founded in London in 1991, but in 2001 you moved to Dubai. How do you compare the Group’s experiences in the two cities?
Sheikh Waleed Al-Ibrahim: To be honest, in the beginning we went to London in search of stability, security, safety, public and private freedoms, progressive mentalities, professionalism, creativity, individual initiative and entrepreneurship.
But Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum [the Ruler of Dubai] brought us back to the heart of the Arab world, and he has provided for us—and for others in Dubai—what we originally dreamed of when we went to London—and more! Thus, in 2001, MBC Group moved to Dubai, and that was truly a quantum leap on all levels. I have said time and again that Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the flame. The closer you get to the flame, the more you are touched by its light and its warmth. There is no doubt that our presence in Dubai has had a major impact. This city has witnessed uninterrupted success over the past years, thanks to the watchful eye of the Emirati leadership, the enlightened mind and vision of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the facilities available in the Emirates, and a generally open mentality. This is in addition to a high level of competitiveness and lower operational costs in comparison to those of any media group in Britain or in other European countries and the rest of the world. Frankly, what I appreciate about Dubai is the humility that counters the sheer size of its accomplishments. The more it achieves, the more humility that is instilled within the builders of Dubai.
Q: Can you tell us which media group or television channel represents the biggest competition for the MBC Group?
The media group that represents the biggest challenge for us is any that has succeeded and continues to succeed in providing a sustainable basic product—exactly as we did when we launched our mother channel, MBC1. Then one thing led to another! Of course, we have some competitors in a number of countries—in Egypt, North Africa and elsewhere.
Other avenues of competition are related to specific genres, such as news or sports. However, even in the news arena, the Al-Arabiya television channel has outperformed some of its toughest competitors in terms of credibility, covering breaking news and economic stories, viewership rates, retaining the confidence of both advertisers and the world of business and finance, and garnering a large following on the Internet and social networking websites.
At any rate, we take into account the performance of the basic 50 channels—out of more than a thousand—on Arab satellite television. We also closely follow modern techniques in the world of broadcasting, communications, social networking, technology and telecommunications companies, service providers, and content producers. All of these sectors are linked to television and media.
Q: The MBC Group has a significant presence in the Saudi market. Does your relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia affect the quality of your work? Do Saudi relations with Arab and Western countries affect the nature and content of your coverage and your general editorial line?
Our character as a media group is affected by our interaction with the viewer and our understanding of his dreams and concerns. But in some cases, our presentation has differed from that of the official [state television] networks in certain countries. The best example of this was during the Arab Spring, when we relied on a special strategy in our work and took a different editorial line than the countries we consider ourselves close to.
Of course, we are still practicing media, and not politics in the narrowest sense of the word. Without any doubt, what concerns us the most is the national interest, and we do not disseminate official government views. In regards to the Al-Arabiya channel, I have full confidence in my colleague, Mr. Abdulrahman Al-Rashed. He is capable of managing both the Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath news channels, and of leading them towards success.
Q: Saudi host Dawood Al-Shirian has begun to garner attention for his bold attitude towards addressing social and political issues on his talk show, Al-Thamina Ma’a Dawood (Eight O’Clock with Dawood). Who draws the boundaries on such boldness at the MBC Group?
In all honesty, it is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who determines such limits. He calls on everyone—including ministers and senior officials—to put the interests of the Kingdom above all else, to meet the aspirations of the Saudi citizen, and to meet the needs of the youth, all within a framework of transparency and improved performance. From my experience, I can add with full confidence that Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz also pays attention to the interests of the Saudi citizen. He is an unassailable bastion of the Kingdom, a friend of journalists and the greatest supporter of modern media. My understanding of Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz is that he is the closest to our generation, and I am confident that he is working for the good and benefit of all those who live within the Kingdom.
To return to your question, on a practical level it is daily practice that sets the limits to our boldness. As long as your content services the nation and its citizens, you have few limits. Regarding some programs and sensitive issues, the directors and producers look to the administration for advice and counsel.
For example, my colleague, Mr. Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, uses his experience, knowledge and passion for matters of public interest to direct the content of the Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath. The same goes for Mr. Dawood Al-Shirian’s direction of Al-Thamina, as well as the news bulletins on MBC1 and the MBC in a Week program. At any rate, I consider these two authorities on such matters, and I do not interfere in their decisions.
Q: MBC Masr, the Egyptian channel, has become a very popular even though some consider it suspect because the Group is run by Saudis. How have you dealt with this? Are you satisfied with MBC Masr’s performance so far?
MBC Masr is a quintessentially Egyptian channel, created out of the country and managed by a cadre of Egyptians. Mohamed Abdel-Mutaal, the general manager of the channel, has full operational, administrative and financial independence. We do not interfere in Egyptian internal affairs. This is our public policy. Today, MBC Masr is the second-most viewed channel in Egypt. But, as we have learned from Shekih Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, we cannot stop at being number 2. We must always focus on getting to first place.
Q: Where does MBC stand in terms of the Egyptian presidential candidates, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahy? How have you addressed the Egyptian voter during the campaign?
We support the stability of Egypt and everything that preserves its security and national interest, as it is the largest Arab county and one of the most notable in terms of demographics and economy. The Egyptian people have great creative potential as well. I believe that stability in Egypt is the key to stability in the region, and I believe that Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is a prime example of courage and bravery in the face of extremism. But before we can say anything, we must wait for Egyptian voters to take to the polls. We will stand by the decision of the Egyptian people.
Our media presence in Egypt is not a recent development; it did not start with the creation of MBC Masr in 2012. In fact, our media presence was cemented in 1991, when MBC1 was established. That was our first cooperative effort with Maspero [the Egyptian state broadcasting authority], when it purchased the rights to broadcast some of MBC’s programming, such as dramas. From that time on, MBC1 became a presence within Arab and Egyptian media. It is no secret that Egyptian TV channels have greatly evolved due to the content they received from MBC.
Q: Popular TV comedian Bassem Youssef was asked to sign with MBC Masr, and as a result viewership of the channel increased. What drove you to pursue Bassem Youssef?
Bassem Youssef is a cultured and ambitious young Egyptian, a cardiologist and an outstanding journalist. The successful presentation and content of [Youssef’s show] Al-Bernameg depends on a team of creative youth. The controversy surrounding Al-Bernameg mostly has to do with what’s happening on the Egyptian street, and it is unfair to burden it with more than it can carry. Today, Al-Bernamag airs on MBC Masr. Bassem Youssef and his team determine the content of Al-Bernameg’s episodes, and we do not interfere in these decisions.
Q: We heard that you have established new partnerships with Turkey. What goals do you have for these collaborations?
We are working to build and establish companies to produce shared content with Turkish producers, because the market in Turkey is both professional and developed and production values are very high. Similarly, we are working to find alternatives to the Turkish–Arabic dramas if they can be cost-effective, high quality, competitive and draw a large viewership.
Q: MBC Group has many programs devoted to the subject of terrorism. What is the role of the media in covering terrorism?
Terrorism has no country or religion! It is an international crime that does not spare anyone. Essentially, there are three schools of thought in the media on how to discuss the scourge of terrorism:
You can deal with it sympathetically, giving terrorists a positive reign over media and therefore a fertile ground for the emergence and promotion of their ideas, ideologies, actions and faces. You can be neutral, only focusing on the news related to terrorism, shying away from the promotion of terrorists and their crimes. At the same time, neutrality precludes a direct confrontation with terrorism as well.
Or you can confront and counter terrorism. You can pursue an effective path of opposition to terrorism by providing meaningful cross-media content that calls a spade a spade without fear or hesitation. You can keep the public aware of things, in order to protect peace, stability, security and the national interest. This is the method we adopted early on here at MBC Group and the Al-Arabiya channel. It is true that it is a tough path, but it is the healthiest and safest one.
Naturally, education, awareness, efforts in the field, and security operations are the most important aspects of counterterrorism. These are all integrated into the role of media. In this regard, I am proud of the achievements of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan [the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Emirates’ armed forces] and Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz [the Saudi Minister of the Interior], who I consider two of the most prominent figures combatting extremism and terrorism in our region.
Q: MBC has received a lot of attention for its historical dramas—you recently produced the series Saraya Abdeen, and before that Omar and King Farouk. For each show there followed political and social reactions to the programming. Can you tell us about them?
Saraya Abdeen is by far the most ambitious Arab drama production, surpassing Omar in terms of costs. With the personal support of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, as well as our cooperation with Dubai Media City, we were able to use the highest-quality audiovisual technology in our new studios in the City in order to successfully produce Saraya Abdeen. The series Surprise, coming this Ramadan, will be the new benchmark for large dramatic works . . .
Q: MCB often makes Arab versions of popular programs from around the world. Where do these “remade” series fit into your larger work?
I always hear about “remaking”—but I don’t understand exactly what it means. For example, is producing a program in America whose original idea comes from the Netherlands and with intellectual ownership by a global [production] company with a presence on five continents, called “remaking”?
Is filming a globally recognized format in Beirut or Dubai or Cairo, for example—with high standards and the latest audiovisual and production technologies, along with Arab creativity, talent, contestants, members of judging panels, and Arab musicians, on Arab lands—is that “remaking,” too? It is as though globalization does not exist, or as though we don’t know how to preserve our Arab identity, while remaining open-minded toward the best of the East and the West.
Q: MBC’s video on demand service, Shahid.net—similar to the BBC’s iPlayer or Hulu in the US—was the first such service in the Arab world, and it is rapidly gaining popularity. How do you plan to promote Shahid.net and confront challenges like piracy?
We are working to outfit Shahid.net with top-of-the-line technology and locally competitive content. Of course, there is a plan to launch a companion site called Shahid Plus in order to allow the viewer to download top new movies and TV series so they can watch them at any time for a small fee.
I follow new digital applications with great interest, as I do exclusive, pioneering content that takes into account the need to adopt effective legal, administrative and technical measures to fight piracy and protect intellectual property rights. As for the possibility of cooperating with international partners who are experts in the field, everything is possible, but long-term partnerships must also provide for the interests of all parties involved.
Q: You run quite a few Arab versions of internationally popular reality TV competitions, on which first-rate stars often appear. For example, you had . What surprises are up your sleeve for this year?
Today, MBC has in its possession a range of leading global programs in their Arab forms, including Arabs Got Talent, The Voice, Arab Idol, and Shaklak Mesh Gharib [the Arab version of Your Face Sounds Familiar]. All have a musical component and need great artists to sit on the judging panels. Our record company, Platinum Records, follows up and manages the work of new stars in the early stages, and some of them are products of these Arabized global programs. We cherish cooperation with the most prominent Arab drama stars and judging panels, and we are honored to be able to offer these programs.
Q: The MBC Group has achieved a lot and expanded a great deal since it was created. Are you satisfied with what has been achieved over the past 23 years? What are your aspirations for the future?
I am relatively satisfied with the performance of the MBC Group, but my ambition goes far beyond what we have accomplished so far. I am never satisfied with myself, and this is what motivates me to work hard and expect more from the team, in order to achieve our ambitions and dreams.
Q: What is the greatest challenge you foresee for MBC?
Continuing to progress, excel, and reinvent ourselves whenever the need arises. Most importantly, we must never reach the day in which we become self-satisfied and fall into the trap of arrogance and retreat—God forbid. As for managing the future of a sector as vibrant and variable as the media and entertainment industry, I am of the opinion that the revolution in information and communications technology carries a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges.
The most important challenge is continuing to invest in local media content that is high quality and deals with our culture and background, with a specific emphasis on clear and precise targeting. Furthermore, we must focus on the possibility of providing content customization and on-demand content.
There is a need to explore the technological changes that are reflected in one way or another through the consumption patterns of and media content most relevant to the public, especially among the youth. It is true that television remains the main source of information and entertainment, but we must also provide media content that is more integrated into multiple platforms. We must also adopt the latest technologies to communicate and interact more and more with the public.
Inevitably, we must remain alert of new means of broadcasting and distributing content on local, regional and international platforms. In particular, we must go beyond using satellites and cables. We must use whatever will allow us to reach the broadest possible audience on five continents, and thus allow us to take advantage of the many prospects within the digital world.
In any case, the human being is the focus and purpose of technological development, as well as the cornerstone of present and future progress in the media.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.
A second part of the interview, in which Sheikh Waleed Al-Ibrahim discusses the state of Arab media more generally, can be read here.