Saudi leads news to ratings victory

Featured player: Abdul Rahman Al Rashed

While Al Jazeera continues to make headlines across the Western world — the latest being that former Blighty Home Secretary David Blunkett advised Prime Minister Tony Blair to bomb the satcaster’s Baghdad transmitter during the Iraq war — execs at rival newsie Al Arabiya are content with snatching the crown as the Arab world’s most popular newscaster.

Ratings released by Ipsos Stat in the wake of this summer’s war between Israel and Lebanon showed Al Arabiya had finally overtaken its better-known competitor, no mean feat considering Al Jazeera had a seven-year headstart.

Leading Al Arabiya’s charge is general manager Abdul Rahman Al Rashed. The highly respected exec is recognized across the region as one of the premier Saudi journos in the game, and is known to be well-connected with the kingdom’s ruling classes.

While Al Jazeera can boast of backing from Qatar’s emir, Al Arabiya is owned by leading Saudi satcaster MBC.

“From day one, we concentrated on going after Arab audiences,” says Al Rashed. “It was never an international issue for us. We formulated our strategy to go after the Arab market, and it’s been very successful for us.”

If timing is everything, then Al Arabiya’s launch in 2003 at the height of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq meant it had a full slate of reporting from its first day on air. The Saudi satcaster has steadily built up its reputation among Arab auds to become one of the most trusted news orgs in the region.

“We have to recognize that the news market in the Mideast is a huge one,” Rashed says. “You’re talking about more than 100 million viewers. In my opinion, it’s even bigger than Europe. There will continue to be a big interest in conflicts, whether in Iraq or Palestine, or even more local ones such as between Morocco and Algeria or in the Sudan.”

Having graduated from the American U. in Washington, D.C., with a degree in visual communications, the 50-year-old Al Rashed has enjoyed an illustrious 20-year career. Before taking up his post at Al Arabiya in 2004, Al Rashed spent five years as editor-in-chief of leading daily newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat (also Saudi-owned), and then 10 more at the helm of weekly magazine Al Majalla.

It has been a particularly heady time to cover the Arab world.

“I’m an old man now, so it’s difficult to pick out one story from the last 20 years I’m most proud of,” Al Rashed jokes. “I was the one who broke the news about Libyan involvement in Lockerbie, as well as the secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which were going on in Washington. But personally I most enjoyed reporting about NASA while I was in Houston and Florida.”

Al Rashed has been instrumental in pushing the importance of training for all Al Arabiya reporters. The exec sent his field staff on a course that covered everything from lighting to interviewing and editing. He will introduce a code of ethics at the satcaster sometime in 2007.

“Next year will be our year of training. We don’t lack issues, audiences or journalists in the Arab world. What we are lacking is improving the skills, which will make a difference,” says Al Rashed.

As well as continued competition from Al Jazeera, Al Rashed soon will have to contend with a wave of Western-funded Arab newscasters. Russia, Germany and France, as well as the BBC, are all set to launch their own Arabic-language services in the months to come. Not that Al Rashed is overly worried.

“I think the Arab market will only support two or three big news channels. The rest will be useful for a certain audience, but I can’t imagine the French or the Russians will have a major impact on us.”

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