Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat—Like everywhere in the world, the media in the Arab region is struggling to adapt to the emergence of new media. Media in the region also face a number of unique challenges, not least political instability and extremism.
But in conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat, MBC Group chairman Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim expressed his firm belief that media in the Arab world can conquer these challenges, saying that young people are the key to securing the future of media in the region.
Q: The Arab media industry has been developing for a few decades now, both in London and the region. What do you think the future holds for Arab media?
I trust the capabilities of the younger generation to achieve a great deal and become leaders, so I make sure to provide a framework to promote the best performance possible. I am proud when I witness the birth of a promising media, and especially when I see a young face on one of our channels.
Does anything make you worry for the future of media in our region?
What I fear in media is the prevalence of antiquated mentalities and a narrow view of competition, and especially when people are dishonest and try to cut corners. This is happening today in a number of media outlets, which I feel are taking media in the wrong direction. Media now is characterized by insulting and exaggerated language, which has replaced dignified language and professionalism and ignored the tastes of the market.
I’m also afraid that the media restricts freedoms and is inclined toward extremism, instead of moderation. I’m afraid of the physical and intellectual terrorism that threatens journalists in conflict zones, as well as the persistence of piracy and theft of content. In any case, my goal is to continue working in order to expand the Arab media market, and to secure the kind of budgets that will allow it to compete and excel in our region and beyond. This can only be achieved by expanding the size of the advertising market, building knowledge economies, and promoting a culture of work and production.
Q: Two of the MBC Group’s channels, Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath, focus on the youth to quite an extent. Is this a reflection of your faith in the ability of the youth in our region?
It is certainly a reflection of our confidence in our youth and our faith in their abilities. We cannot exclude this generation from our future plans and projects, whether in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] or abroad. We are counting on them to keep pace with the process of evolution and the path of gradual and purposeful change, in order to put an end to fossilized mindsets and to counter extremism in the region. In all honesty, knowledge economies cannot be built without the younger generation: There are about 180 million young people in the Arab world. The biggest challenge lies in finding initiatives that would enable these young people to become more creative, provide them with productive jobs, and give them a wider space for innovation and creativity. This is what we offer in a number of talent-oriented initiatives and programs that aim to instill the youth with self-confidence and a [desire to pursue] excellence, while encouraging them to renounce violence, extremism and intolerance. Most importantly, we strive to keep the candle of hope lit.
Q: Al-Jazeera America launched to some great fanfare last summer, after Al-Jazeera English was launched in 2006. Do you have any comment on the phenomenon of Al-Jazeera International? Will we ever see an “Al-Arabiya English”?
If you want to follow anyone, they must be successful. Do you consider Al-Jazeera English successful?! Why we are expected to follow unsuccessful media models? Al-Jazeera America has not been able to attract the American viewer. You have to consider the cost and performance of its counterparts in the United States; and Al-Jazeera has a diverse investment portfolio and acquired Al Gore’s Current TV television company for a hefty sum. Entering into competition with international news channels requires extraordinary potential, and [it requires you to] work with a similar mentality and professionalism. Here, the experience of sports channels that have the rights to cover international matches and races is important, because those rights were acquired for astronomical sums and yet did not achieve noteworthy commercial returns at all. New channels cannot be launched if they are not economically feasible. Despite this, nothing prevents us from having our own special experience in the field of sports [coverage], through depending on the standards that distinguish MBC Group.
Incidentally, the Al-Jazeera news channel is our competition within the Arab region. But Al-Arabiya, in addition to having the highest viewership figures and gaining the confidence of advertisers and the world of finance and business, has become the top channel in the region. It has more than 27 million followers and subscribers registered on social networks.
My friend Abu Khaled [Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal] has said that Al-Arabiya is the channel of rulers, while Al-Jazeera is the channel of the people—but are really there 27 million rulers?
Q: Google recently purchased WhatsApp for 19 billion US dollars. Do you think similar business deals and huge mergers in the media, new media and entertainment sectors will become the norm in the future? Do you think such deals could become commonplace in our region?
In principle, nothing is impossible—but I do not think that the amounts that are traded globally can apply to our region. In America, there are 5 or 6 broadcast television networks, as well as a leading national broadcaster. In the Arab world, there are hundreds of small, uncompetitive channels, so mergers, acquisitions and restructuring must take place, especially among new players.
MBC Group today is a private company and I personally make sure that our company follows the best practices in its administrative, operational, social, and technological performances. These practices must be checked and when we are put under the microscope, we become more attractive to the leading players in the media world, as well to investors and shareholders.
Q: Where do you think television fits in the Arab media scene in this age of the Internet and new media?
Television remains an indispensable source of entertainment—not only in the Arab region, but around the world. Recent times have demonstrated—especially in this particular region—that television is a bridge to [Internet] forums and social networks, as well as the driving force behind media consumption, with its various fixed, interactive and animated platforms. What happens on the television screen is usually what influences conversations on [Internet] forums, social media networks, new media and so on. And that is not to mention the great entertainment television is able to provide to the millions who watch it.
Q: Social media has come to shape the landscape in Saudi Arabia and the wider world. Do you follow Twitter? Will it have an impact on TV viewership?
I am on Twitter, as well as other social networking sites and forums associated with the Group. We have reached more than 122 million subscribers and followers [on social media] as of April 2014, which is a very high number, not only in comparison with other regional media groups, but the world over. This is a great achievement for us, [and these numbers are] in line with the average television viewership rates we enjoy throughout the Arab world. In fact, I see integration, not competition, between traditional media, digital media and new media. As I said previously, I consider television to be a driving force behind and bridge toward interactive platforms in both directions. We see this every day, especially with the top Arabized global entertainment programs [Arab versions of global reality TV formats, such as Arabs Got Talent], which have reached very high viewership levels and an increasingly interactive audience on social media sites, forums and the Internet generally.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.
The first part of the interview, in which Sheikh Waleed discusses the MBC Group, can be read here.