Sheik takes pilgrimage to the West
Who: Saudi Arabian sheik and media tycoon
What: Plans to set up an English-lingo channel about the ‘true” Arab world
What they’re saying: It’s a worthy gesture but may be too late.
Sheik Kamal Saleh is a man with a vision. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he’s focused on one issue: how to get a more balanced view of the Arab world and its culture across to the Western world, chiefly to Americans.
If anyone can spearhead such a move, it just may be this unlikely proselytizer. The 60-ish Saudi businessman already owns and operates a Middle Eastern satcaster headquartered in Jeddah called Arab Radio and TV, which beams mostly Arabic programming across the region to some 300,000 subs. Saleh, the largest shareholder, has invested upwards of $1.5 billion in the venture so far. Break-even for ART is expected next year.
The English-language channel is, however, not being pushed as a money-spinner so much as a philanthropic gesture.
“After the events of Sept. 11, I feel guilty that I did not use my media and my money to help humanity,” the sheik says.
At the head of a sprawling business empire worth $5 billion-$6 billion, the quietly unassuming and deeply religious sheik is on a first-name basis with not only the Saudi royal family but also with global media jet-setters like Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi.
What he calls “the tragic events” of Sept. 11 have inspired him to play a more public media role, though he is clearly not as comfortable at it as better-known Arab media types like Prince Al Waleed bin Talal and Tunisian producer Tarak Ben Ammar.
Having started his business career bussing the faithful to and from Mecca for the annual haj, sheik Saleh now shunts between Jeddah, Cairo and Beirut as the head of Dallah Al Baraka, which is involved in everything from banking and hotels to fisheries and media.
During a recent meeting at his penthouse perch above the Croisette in Cannes, he insisted, “I intend to devote half of my time and money to this cause, coming up with programming which will put Arabic culture and Islam in a better light.”
The sheik, who dresses in American sweats and sports what looks like a K-mart watch, pulls out hand-scribbled papers in Arabic: They’re plans for the Fair Vision Network, for which he’s immediately earmarking $100 million. The sheik has already been on the phone to potential backers in Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt. He may even take the idea to the Saudi royal family.
“We know practically everything about American pop culture,” he says. “But what does the West know about us? It’s our own fault. We simply haven’t done anything to introduce our true culture to the West. Talking to the West now is not only a duty — it’s self-defense.”
The channel will include news reports, documentaries about Arab culture and even some entertainment programming.
Exactly how such programming would be made available in the States is not yet clear. The sheik, whose English is workable but hardly subtle, either is or pretends to be fuzzy about how Western-style distribution really works.
He says he wants it to air on the BSkyB platform in the U.K. and on EchoStar in the U.S. (ART does have limited distribution already in the States to Arab emigres via DishNet.)
But the sheik understands that time is running out for such a venture.
“I will be moving quickly,” he explained late one evening over dinner with some of his entourage. Between cell phone calls and Armenian delicacies, he kept emphasizing that true Muslims would reject the actions of men like Osama Bin Laden.
While the sheik shares a widely held view among moderate Arabs that American news coverage of the Middle East is biased, he does not have too many kind words for Al Jazeera, either. The Qatar-based newscaster, which is carried on ART, should not, he said, have given Bin Laden carte blanche to rattle on unchallenged against the West.
The sheik’s entourage includes Karim Abdallah, a Lebanese who once worked for Turner Broadcasting in the Mid East and is now charged with getting ART programming carried on platforms around the world. Saleh’s wife Safaa, a former Egyptian actress, is also involved onscreen in some of his wholly owned satellite channels.
Sheik Saleh also has nine children, one of whom, 25-year-old daughter Hadeel, is being groomed to play a larger role in the media part of his empire. She is currently a staffer at Arab Digital Distribution, another of the units of Saleh’s media empire.
Much more westernized than her father, she told Variety that there would be an Internet component to the Fair Vision Network as well, so that young people could be enticed to learn more about the Arab world.
Whatever the viability of gaining carriage for such a channel in the States, Saleh’s idea is clearly one that’s gaining ground in the Arab world.
In their own effort to dispel anti-Arab sentiment in the West, six Persian Gulf states just last week proposed launching an English-language TV channel that would key Americans to the fact that not all Muslims support terrorism.
So far it’s unclear whether that Gulf States initiative would proceed separately from or in concert with the Saleh project.