Abdullatif al-Sayegh sits in his office flicking through the pages of Emirates Today, one of his three daily newspapers, noting that ads have been sold on virtually every page.
“In the past 15 years, every single newspaper launched in the U.A.E. failed, and we survived. They failed because they tried to follow a formula. In Dubai, if you follow, you fail. I create my own concepts,” says al-Sayegh.
The 35-year-old CEO of Arab Media Group (AMG) — which boasts eight radio stations in addition to the print publications — is now preparing to enter the voraciously competitive world of pan-Arab TV. What’s more, he’s doing it by launching MTV Arabiya, set to begin broadcasting before the end of the year.
Al-Sayegh, voted CEO of the year at the World CEO Forum in March, stunned many in the Arab TV biz when he beat out competition from top-rated satcaster MBC to land the MTV license from Viacom. That he pulled off the deal — rumored to have cost him $6 million a year for five years — serves as evidence of the mogul’s boundless ambition.
“We are fighters, we are young, and we love challenges. Our suitcase is always packed, and we’re ready to go to the last point of the universe,” comments the married father of one.
Al-Sayegh’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. After traveling around the States — he graduated from the U. of Tampa with a degree in communications and media as well as racked up some credits at UC Davis and Miami U. — he returned to Dubai to set up Arabian Radio Network, now part of holding company AMG, in 2001, with only five employees.
AMG, which also consists of Arabian Television Network and Arabian Broadcasting Network, now employs some 1,700 people.
Crowded air space
But for all the impressive statistics, al-Sayegh is facing the biggest challenge of his professional career to date. There are anywhere from 250 to 300 free-to-air Arab satcasters, leaving scant room for any startup channel — even one as eagerly anticipated as MTV Arabiya.
Al-Sayegh is unfazed: “People ask me about going into competition with 250 channels. It’s going to be very challenging and a lot of fun. We want to fix the TV scene in this region, because it’s a mess. One way is to tie up with big international companies like Viacom and show them you can protect their brand and treat it properly.”
Another big question is how far MTV Arabiya can push the envelope. While it brings with it a reputation as a youth brand leader across the world, how it fits into the more conservative tastes and traditions of Arab auds remains to be seen.
“Any brand you bring from the West is going to have difficulties being accepted because of what is happening politically,” al-Sayegh says. “Your first step is to get the approval and acceptance of your viewers. You have to be responsible and make the family understand the value of what you’re giving them. Any channel we take within our group will always have our own mark. Otherwise, it just becomes another subtitled channel you’re bringing in from the West.”
AMG is planning to roll out more channels before the end of the year. Though vague about details, al-Sayegh does confirm they will be entertainment channels.
“There are five channels we’re currently studying on our platform. We’re setting the base. This is probably the fever of Dubai: Whenever we want to do something, we want to do it big or we don’t want to do it at all.”