Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat – Al Waleed al Ibrahim, chairman of the MBC Group has won numerous awards for his contributions to the field of Arab media. He has faced many challenges in his role, the prominent of which was the relocation of the Group’s head offices from London to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Al Waleed al Ibrahim discussed various aspects of the MBC Group. The interview proceeded as follows:
Q) MBC was the first and biggest media group to move to the region’s first free media city [Dubai Media City]. Do you believe that media cities were founded as a way to bypass laws that allow for satellite channels to be launched and do you support this expansion?
A) Media cities have succeeded in carrying out an important task; facilitating various procedures for different companies operating in the media field as well as establishing a healthy environment that prompts creativity in production and that attracts various skills and experiences away from routine and bureaucracy that could impede new and serious ideas. Personally, I welcome any expansion of practices based upon free market economics.
However, in light of the growing trend of establishing regional media cities in different parts of the Middle East, it is important to understand that the basic challenge lies in our capacity to continue developing Arab skills and talents and investing in the content of the industry, namely in fields of production and editing, music, arts, development of software and film studios. Alternatively, we will continue to pave the way for the discovery of new patterns, forums and material that participate internally and externally to the development of the media industry in our region and advancing it to reach international standards.
Q) You have turned your focus to drama production particularly elaborate history and social content. Does this new orientation reflect an investment on your part or does it reflect a demand from the audience?
A) The MBC Group is keen on drama production as it is considered important content for television channels. When we decided to expand our activities in the field of drama production, which is a field that we have worked on for a long time though on varying levels, we decided to present distinctive productions in terms of content in all its various aspects. Our permanent objective is to present programs that rise to the expectations of the Arab audience that is now more discerning towards the quality of programs. We began producing new material in a direct manner or in collaboration with other companies; this provided different options to us to present and discuss social issues and different drama content on screen. It is for this reason that we used several faculties in this field and established a specialized company within the group responsible for drama production. Moreover, we have worked closely with major companies that produce Arabic drama according to high standards.
Q) Is there a clear Arab media plan that is being followed?
A) We cannot say that there is a specific Arab media framework; there are major media institutions in the fields of journalistic and electronic publishing as well as public and private broadcasting channels. Of course there are individual projects and other temporary projects but we rely on the markets and the viewer who remains the sole authority, the one who chooses and the target of all media efforts. This is what we are proud of having achieved throughout the Arab world.
We are in need of major investment in the media field so that Arab social issues are dealt with according to a well-studied approach. At the same time, we do not appreciate government authority over the media since direct government intervention in managing the media field will drag it into a mire of stagnancy and stereotypes. This pushes us to call for the liberation of Arab media from the dominance of government authorities; the media has an important and effective role to play in strengthening understanding between cultures and different civilizations on one hand and to strengthen local social values on the other hand. This is in addition to its leading role in mobilizing the media and being part of constructive competition in the satellite world.
Q) Does this mean that Arab media institutions are at risk or are facing major challenges that could affect their current status especially that considerable foreign investments are flooding into the media field in the region?
A) The status of the media and satellite channels is similar to that of any other investment projects; it is affected by fluctuation and it serves as part of the surrounding environment. In this case, the administration of these channels resort to setting appropriate plans to accommodate for the new status of the Arab media market. It is a reality that can never be overlooked and to disregard it could oust some parties not only from competition but from the market as well.
Q) MBC recently launched the ‘Wanasah’ music channel; will film production be the next step?
A) Last year, the MBC Group, in collaboration with singer Rashed al Majed, began to manage the Wanasah music channel around the same time that it launched MBC Action channel for youth. However, the issue of entering the field of Arabic cinema is completely different. There are 200 million Arab viewers who speak the same language and this means that the Arab market is very important to cinema producers yet the reality is that the region is inflicted by piracy, censorship and some technical issues. The most important challenges are related to the protection of intellectual property. When countries suffer from piracy, which is rampant in the Arab market, the level of attendance in theatres or cinemas would be limited in comparison to the standards of other markets where piracy barely exists and where violation of intellectual property is at its lowest. We suffer from a shortage in capabilities, and substandard production, which means to a large extent that it is difficult to make a profitable progressive investment in this field or even search for positive solutions that could revive all industries and production that both relate to the protection of intellectual property.
Nevertheless MBC being a major private media corporation could serve as an advantage in transmitting films on television screens. We are considering a production unit for film within MBC with the aim of producing five to six films per year. When research has been completed and we have understood the extent of its effectiveness and feasibility, we will then make an announcement about it.
Q) Are there any plans to launch channels that specialize in live broadcasts via the internet?
A) During last Ramadan, MBC offered its viewers the opportunity to download episodes of ‘Tash Ma Tash’, the popular Saudi comedy series, for the first time using mobile phones in addition to other drama series as part of ‘Mobisodes’ [promotion] that we launched with the help of mobile communication companies in the Gulf region. MBC also gave viewers the opportunity to watch some of its drama series via its website to audiences all over the world. Throughout 2008, MBC will continue to offer its digital services including a new information channel to be launched via the internet.
Q) MBC began on a pan-Arab level and your slogan was “The world through Arab eyes,” however there are some indications that suggest that you intend to launch local channels in certain Arab countries. What is your comment in this regard?
A) Various ideas have been presented to us. We analyze our options and what we could offer in order to be closer to the Arab viewer in all possible ways. We are examining the opportunities and possibilities of launching certain channels in several regions whether North Africa, the Palestinian Territories or Kuwait. However, this idea will mainly focus upon terrestrial transmission whereby we can use our own productions, attract local advertisers and achieve a respectable status on the local level.
Q) Does this reflect an inclination towards competing with other local channels that are probably government owned?
A) There is always competition in all cases and at varying levels. For a channel, what matters is who watches it, not who owns it. Here we talk about a natural shift towards giving the viewer various options. However, when these local channels ─ even if they are government owned ─ constitute a financial burden, this leads to an imbalance of competition and a decline in the general level of the media sector.
We believe that the “government” public sector cannot compete with the private sector or direct operative and creative activities. It has to be supportive and encouraging to the private sector by providing the necessary infrastructure for work. This matter applies to all major economic industries both locally and globally. The privatization of media in the Arab world is a long journey that should be embarked upon soon.
Q) Will MBC become a public company or will it consider the option of merging?
A) There are several opportunities available to us as well as promising ideas for the future especially after we restructured and reorganized the group and embarked upon important production, operative and technical expansions. In any case, with regards to opportunities and options, the decision mainly depends upon what we deem suitable for us as a group. With respect to joint experiences, content, investments and several other factors, such issues are determined in accordance with commercial negotiations, their timings and strategic added value. We could say that we had previously announced that we are studying all the available alternatives; until now we have not decided whether we will offer the Group’s shares to the public, whether we will merge with other groups or even acquiesce other channels.
Q) Following the huge success of the King Farouk series, what is in store for MBC viewers next Ramadan?
A) We have become accustomed to early preparation. The MBC channels are now looking for what they will present to viewers during next Ramadan. MBC promises to offer its best. We have some plans for series that are on the same level of excellence as the King Farouk series, which we will announce in due time. We have continuously been able to achieve the highest number of ratings during Ramadan. As usual, we have several brilliant works in store to offer next Ramadan.
Q) How do you face the strong competition of other Arab television channels that aim to employ your staff, especially since you recently lost a large number of prominent figures from Al Arabiya?
A) As a group we are proud of our capacity to attract the most important and prominent of Arab media talents, whether they are experienced or not. There are several reasons behind this including the distinct work environment that we offer, the chance to work with professionals in the region as well as competitive salaries within the market.
However, competition remains fierce in the arena of Arab satellite media. It must be noted that the MBC Group enjoys the biggest share of professional stability for those employed by it. Of course, the market is open and competition is strong and we cannot force others to stay if they want to leave for any given reason. However, our doors are open to everyone. As a matter of fact, there are several media and technical figures that left the MBC Group only to return after having experienced other workplaces.
Q) You had previously stated that you would launch a moderate Islamic channel. Is this still the case?
A) What I mentioned was an idea that others had suggested in this regard. We are currently considering the idea and whether we can launch a channel that is different to the ones that are available at the moment.
The truth is that we receive various offers in the group and we have various ideas for our media projects. Any idea or project is studied thoroughly before any decisions can be made.
Q) The Al Arabiya channel is approaching its five-year anniversary; what is your opinion of its achievements so far?
A) For a news channel that was only established five years ago, I believe that we have achieved a lot in a relatively short period of time. In fact the most prominent of these successes lies in the creation of a new approach amongst Arab news channels to the extent that Al Arabiya has become a highly professional informative source. This has driven other channels to adopt the same methods. Al Arabiya’s strategy is focused upon credibility and realism in dealing with news and events. With its political, economic, sports and cultural diversity, Al Arabiya is close to perfection and we expect a lot more from this channel after its five-year anniversary.
Q) Has the success of the Arabic channel pushed you towards the idea of establishing an English news channel to portray the image of the Arab world and the region to non-Arabs or even to a domestic, non-Arabic speaking audience?
A) Firstly, it is important to clarify that on the international level, news channels receive the least share of financial revenues; this is regardless of its costly expenditures.
The idea of launching an English-language news channel has been under consideration for quite a while. The problem lies in the feasibility. It would be difficult to consider a channel like this an immediate commercial success since expenditure is high and foreign expertise that could be employed is expensive. We are still looking into the options of funding for this project.