Arab business TV channels grow

Booming economies contribute to trend

BEIRUT — Business programming is a relatively new concept in Arab television, but the presence of at least five all-business channels now broadcasting on the region’s airwaves shows the trend is growing.

Since the launch of CNBC Arabia in 2003, the business segment has seen non-stop growth, spawning an array of small and medium-sized niche channels covering specific sectors such as real estate, Islamic finance and even a trilingual station that claims to be the world’s first to present economic news in Persian, Arabic and English.

But despite the wealth of new offerings, financial reporting remains a developing, if not experimental, field for Arab broadcasters. For one, coverage remains limited to the various kingdoms of the Gulf with bureaus and reporters based largely in oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Business dealings in the vast majority of the 22 recognized states in the Arab League receive minimal coverage by comparison.

Another issue is the reporting itself. Broadcasters often complain privately about the lack of disclosure among Arab corporations and the difficulty in convincing chief execs to appear on air for live interviews. Yet in many ways, the challenges faced by Arab business television reflect the status-quo in the Middle East’s financial system and the general economic structure among most Arab countries.

Much of the business done in the region revolves around private family-owned firms. It was only recently that stock markets in Dubai and Saudi Arabia saw major listings from newly formed Arab mega corporations, especially in the construction and energy industries. But when Gulf markets went south in 2006 (an event alternatively referred to as ‘crash’ but more often as a ‘market correction’ in the press), there were relatively few investigative reports into the story that had become arguably the biggest ever in regional business news.

Some analysts even blamed the young financial media for too often absorbing the government line, not doing enough to scrutinize over evaluated stocks, and failing to report–as did many Western media outlets — on the devastating effects the collapse had on small investors across Saudi Arabia and beyond. “Business is very much straightforward in the Middle East,” said CNBC Arabia’s Omer Ghani. “There are no Enrons here.”

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