When he took to the stage at the March 3 celebrations in Dubai marking the fifth anniversary of MBC Al-Arabiya, station topper Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed displayed the breezy confidence of a man who has been around the Arab political block more than once.
“I had prepared a speech, but my boss has told me I’ve only got three minutes,” said Al-Rashed, pulling out a hefty pad of paper and throwing it to the floor to the amusement of the assembled dignitaries.
The ability to remain calm under fire has held the Saudi journo in good stead throughout an illustrious career that has culminated in leading the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya to the forefront of the Arab news industry.
Launched in 2003 by MBC Group and founder Saudi Sheik Waleed Al-Ibrahim to offer an alternative voice to groundbreaking newscaster Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya arrived on the Arab TV scene at the height of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Since then, it has had to contend with numerous political cataclysms in the Middle East, from the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day 2005 to the 2006 summer war between Israel and Lebanon and last year’s violent internecine clashes between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah.
“The most important thing we’ve done is to offer millions of viewers around the region a different point of view,” says Al-Rashed. “This has made a big difference in terms of the quality and professionalism of Arab news reporting.”
A seasoned journo himself — the 51-year-old Saudi broke the news about Libya’s involvement in the Lockerbie bombings in 1988 as well as the secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords — Al-Rashed has had to navigate the sometimes fierce competition between Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya for Arab auds.
In a region so dominated by political discourse, and all too often discord, the role of Arab TV satcasters has grown exponentially ever since Al-Jazeera changed the media landscape following its launch in 1996. The lack of competition saw Al-Jazeera easily assume the mantle of most-watched Arab news channel. Since the launch of Al-Arabiya, however, the two channels have been fighting it out for viewers.
“The Middle East is a big area, and we can claim to be the No. 1 channel in some countries, but we have also lost our No. 1 position in others,” Al-Rashed says. “We are very strong across the Gulf, which is important for advertising reasons. We’re No. 1 in Iraq and very strong in Lebanon and Syria since the Hariri assassination. We lost Egypt, however, which is not good news for us. We’re definitely competing for the top position across the region all the time.”
It may be fitting that Al-Arabiya is posting such strong numbers in Iraq, the invasion of which convinced Sheik Waleed that the Arab world needed two major regional news orgs.
Its success there has come at a high cost.
In September 2006, the Iraqi government ordered a monthlong ban on the satcaster after accusing it of “distortions of facts and accuracies” in some of its reporting and attempting to stoke sectarian tension in the country between rival Sunni and Shia factions, a charge that Al-Arabiya execs denied.
In October 2003, the station was shut down for three months by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council following accusations of inciting violence after it broadcast a message purportedly from Saddam Hussein urging resistance against U.S.-led forces in the country.
Rival newscaster Al-Jazeera has been banned from operating in Iraq since August 2004.
Even more damaging has been the loss of life suffered by Al-Arabiya journos. Reporter Atwar Bahjat, along with her cameraman Khaled Mahmoud al-Falahi and soundman Adnan Khairallah, were killed in 2006 while covering sectarian violence in Samarra following the bombing of a holy Shia shrine. In addition, Al-Arabiya has lost a further eight journos since 2003.
It isn’t stopping Al-Arabiya execs from forging ahead with covering news in the battle-scarred country.
“Iraq is a country where people are heavily affected by the news, and we have shown all the sides there, with the exception of Al-Qaeda,” says Al-Rashed. “We have had to review the way we cover Iraq, for example, using more local correspondents to cover their local areas. It is difficult to cover. Five years ago, there were only two streets we could cover. Now we have reporters in every corner of the country, from Basra and Najaf to Baghdad inside and outside of the Green Zone as well as Mosul, even though it’s very dangerous there.”