Saudi Arabia and the struggle to control the flow of information

Mona Sukkarieh.

Since the emergence of mass-media, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been struggling to arm itself with  the proper means to reach a maximum audience at home and in the Arab world, and to shape its views, with three correlated objectives in mind: (1) to confirm Al Saud’s political and religious legitimacy, (2) to assert the wisdom of their political choices and alliances and (3) to ensure the stability of the Kingdom. Every era has brought with it new communication technologies and new media vehicles, and thus new sets of challenges to the Kingdom’s rulers.

At the height of political turmoil in the Arab world in the 1970s, it was no longer enough to rely on a few columnists encouraged to communicate the Kingdom’s message and to write favorable views. Aware of the impact of mass-media, and emboldened by the wealth accumulated from the massive increase in the price of oil in the 70s, the Kingdom took its strategy a step further. In 1978, Asharq al-Awsat, a pan-Arab newspaper, was founded by a private Saudi company, with the full backing of the Royal family. It is now owned by Faisal bin Salman, son of the current Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz. But the real offensive started a decade later. In 1990, Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, son of the late Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, acquired Al-Hayat, one of the leading Lebanese newspapers, forced to shut down in 1976. With a circulation estimated at around 200,000, Al-Hayat became the leading pan-Arab daily.

The introduction of satellite TV in the early 1990s constituted another milestone in communication technologies, and another challenge for the Kingdom. Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), the first pan-Arab TV channel, was established in 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The entertainment channel, closely linked to the late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, was unrivaled in the first few years and was widely watched in different corners of the Arab world.

The Saudi attempt to dominate satellite TV and to impact the views of the masses around the Arab world, particularly when it comes to politics, run into its first serious challenge in 1996, when the Qatari owned Al-Jazeera was launched. Al-Jazeera, with its critical views of Arab regimes, including the Saudi royal family, quickly revolutionized the Arab media landscape with its round-the-hour news broadcast, political talk-shows hosting dissenting views and transmitting material often considered embarrassing to Arab governments. The Kingdom responded by launching its own news channel, Al-Arabiya, in 2003, after it tried, for over a decade, to promote entertainment and relegate politics to a lesser role on satellite TV. Less popular than Al-Jazeera, the Saudi channel still managed to attract a significant portion of the Arab audience and is now considered the 2nd most popular news channel in the Arab world. A new TV channel, Al-Mayadeen, launched in June 2012 by the popular former Al-Jazeera talk-show host Ghassan bin Jiddo, threatens to defy that classification. Unlike Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the new channel is not funded and backed by a specific Gulf ruling family. It was established to counter Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya’s influence for an outcome that remains to be seen.

Throughout the years, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya reflected the heightening rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their quest to influence the Arab masses and promote their political leadership. The tone adopted by both channels is a sign of the state of affairs between the two countries, reflecting either convergence or divergence on major issues. Tension between the two was toned down with the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, since both channels and both countries have found themselves on the same side.

Another era, another milestone in communication technologies and yet another challenge for the Kingdom’s rulers: the past decade has been the decade of the internet in the Arab world with a surge in internet usage and penetration rates exceeding 70% in some corners of the Arab world. With its simplicity and massive reach, social media is becoming increasingly popular, gradually taking a role that is larger than what most rulers in the Arab world would have wished. The Saudis are still struggling to find the proper means to control this new technology, which is increasingly turning into a vehicle of change. Resorting to old habits, censorship and repression are still common and to a large extent effective techniques at home. But this is only one side of the problem. Controlling what is being said abroad is an even greater challenge. In the past, the first response was usually to acquire the media outlet. Does this explain why Prince al-Waleed, who, through his Kingdom Holding, already controls several Arab media outlets such as Rotana and LBC, chose to acquire stakes in the popular micro-blogging site Twitter? Should we expect additional investments in internet companies, social media sites and internet service providers? It’s doubtful that this would lead to tangible results. Will they, then, seek to establish a parallel network, similar to Iran’s plans to launch a strictly national network? Or will they come to the conclusion that this is one medium that might escape their grip?

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