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Sheik, rattle & roll

Western pop culture is being spread by Mideast media

A clutch of gutsy media moguls are beaming their differing brands of pop culture across the Middle East. They are satellite-savvy, format-hungry and politically calculating: Think Rupert Murdoch in a headdress.

Whether it be Lebanese TV tycoon Pierre Daher, Dubai media maven (and crown prince) Al Maktoum or Saudi super-investor Al Waleed, they’re rapidly changing the face of Mideast broadcasting.

Daher, for example, was the first in the region to go after shows like “Big Brother”; Al Maktoum became so mesmerized with media that he’s had an entire mini-city built to foster production; the wily Al Waleed may use his interests in Lebanon to make a run for top office there.

With a retooling of U.S. Mideast policy likely in George W. Bush’s second term, the role of these media barons and their relationship to Western showbizzers and politicos will become more crucial.

Meanwhile, they’re trying to balance the entertainment their audiences are clamoring for with the Islamic values that most Arab governments still foster. Right now they’re coming down hard on the entertainment side.

These stations are airing local versions of “Pop Idol,” “The Bachelor” and “The Apprentice”; in some cases, they’re giving newscasters a longer leash and women on air shorter veils.

And just like Murdoch and his fellow moguls, they’re facing the same headaches — spiraling costs and ever-fiercer competition. Not to mention occasional government interference.

Take Iraq. Nowhere is the influence of these media barons more crucial than in this war-torn country, where the battle for hearts and minds is being fought over the airwaves, with Western-style sudsers and series — and Lebanese savvy.

American-backed media efforts in the region like Radio Sawa and TV station Alhurra can provide a window onto Western values, but it’s these Arab broadcasters that are making the greater impact on the population.

An entertainment channel called Al Sumariyah launched three weeks ago. It was the latest in a string of Arabic-language satcasters that have emerged in the last few months.

Al Sumariyah’s chairman is Lebanese magnate Jean-Claude Boulos, who founded Tele-Liban, the Arab world’s first TV station, in 1958.

“What we’ve achieved with this Iraqi station should go into the Guinness Book of Records,” says Boulos. “In two months and 17 days, it was probably the shortest time ever taken to launch a channel.”

Though broadcasting from Beirut for security reasons, Al Sumariyah has four entertainment shows being produced in Iraq. Boulos hopes this number will increase as violence subsides.

Having worked through the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, Boulos is well aware of the impact TV can have in lifting the spirits of a nation.

“That’s why we transmitted the recent Beirut marathon live on Al Sumariyah. We showed people running through the center of Beirut. The city’s still alive, and it’s been reconstructed. It offers hope to Iraqis in the shelters and under bombing threat.”

A rival station, Al Sharqiya, is backed by Iraqi businessman Saad Bazzaz. The self-professed mogul, who sees himself as a mini-Murdoch, set up the daily paper Azzaman in London in 1992, after his falling out with the Saddam Hussein regime over its invasion of Kuwait.

On returning to Iraq last year, Bazzaz was quick to see that homegrown entertainment could offset the relentlessly downbeat, often blood-soaked reports of newscasters Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah.

Meanwhile, the interim Iraqi government has lured Daher, chief exec of LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.), to spearhead the rebuilding of the country’s national TV stations.

Like many of his Western counterparts, Daher adopted a strategy of local consolidation followed by regional expansion via satellite that has since been copied by every other aspiring Arab media mogul.

His penchant for hiring attractive women to front the station’s shows initially helped build up its audience at home.

Daher was the first to air reality TV in the Arab world, broadcasting “Star Academy,” a twist on “Star Search,” and recently “Miss Lebanon,” a twist on “Big Brother” that placed a dozen beauty contestants in a house together, allowing members of the public to choose their favorite.

He has also embarked on a relentless expansion of the LBC brand.

In December, Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, thought to be the world’s sixth-richest man, bought a 49% share in LBC. Move came as Daher merged with pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat to form LBC-Al Hayat. Latter has spawned a round-the-clock newsie that is fast emerging as a serious rival to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah.

“Competition is extremely fierce, so we need to keep one foot ahead of everyone else with hard work, imagination and research,” Daher mused from his Beirut office.

Daher’s strategy of snapping up Western TV formats and adapting them for an Arab audience has paid dividends, generating extra revenue at a time when Arab satcasters are fighting one another for ad income.

The finale of LBC’s “Star Academy,” for example, received 63 million phone calls from around the Arab world.

As Daher notes: “We’re not inventing the wheel. Arab audiences are just like anywhere else. They want to be able to turn on their tube and forget about the problems of politics and the everyday challenges of life.”

Still, the popularity of such shows in the region means that prices for formats have risen from the $7,000 an episode paid for “Millionaire” and “Pop Idol” to the $100,000 an episode currently being bid for “The Apprentice.”

In any case, the role of Lebanese broadcasters has been key to the success of satellite TV throughout the Arab world — and the country itself could be a model for more troubled Arab territories to emulate. Having suffered through a two-decade civil war, Lebanon emerged with its pluralistic society intact. It’s a melting pot of Christians and Muslims living side by side, and it spawned liberal, modern, outward-thinking TV execs.

“What other culture can boast such a democracy with a Maronite Catholic president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite head of Parliament? Lebanon shows you that all religions can agree,” says Tunisian tycoon Tarak Ben Ammar.

Like the Iraqis with Daher, Dubai’s Mohammed Al Maktoum has enlisted another Lebanese wunderkind, Ali Jaber, to rebuild that tiny emirate’s TV fortunes. Up soon: four new channels, including an English-language outlet.

And Al Maktoum’s 3-year-old Dubai Media City is quickly becoming the centerpiece of the emirate’s “knowledge economy” — which stands in marked contrast to the oil-dependent economies of neighbors like Saudi Arabia.

Set up as a free-trade zone where foreign businesses can own 100% of their enterprises, the city now boasts 550 media companies. There’s a year’s wait for office space.

The inaugural Dubai Film Festival kicks off in early December, with 80 films to screen and 500 foreign guests. Fest CEO Neil Stephenson bills the event as “a cultural bridge between East and West.”

While the DMC already plays host to numerous Bollywood productions, Western film studios have been slow to do location shooting there. That’s set to change.

Last year saw the first Western production to film in the DMC — Michael Winterbottom’s “Code 46.” Warner Bros.’ “Syriana,” starring Matt Damon and George Clooney, will soon locate there.

“Dubai is becoming a competitor to Morocco for big-budget productions. It’s got wonderful high-tech cityscapes, coastal regions and the desert, along with a first-world infrastructure,” says Tim Smythe, CEO of Filmworks, the company handling the shoot for Warners.

The satellite syndrome

Another factor contributing to the success of these Mideast moguls is their effective use of satellites.

Despite the diverse variety of political and religious systems to be found across the region, viewers can — thanks to platforms such as NileSat and ArabSat — watch the same shows in Jeddah as in Beirut.

This unifying approach is helping to liberalize the tastes and mores of vastly different countries despite the occasional setback.

“Star Academy,” for example, saw 30 million people tune in to the season finale, but MBC’s “Big Brother” had to be yanked from screens less than a week after its debut: Having come under fire from conservatives in Bahrain, where the show was being filmed, producers were left with no choice but to cancel it.

Jaber sees the importance of political backing in the region as vital to one’s success as a broadcaster. He praises Qatar’s backing for newsie Al-Jazeera in the face of often unrelenting pressure.

“Qatar is a small country with a conservative society. It’s hardly a democratic country, but the station is provided with very mature political backing and is run by a group of very committed individuals,” he says.

In the MidEast, it seems, free speech can emerge from the most unlikely of breeding grounds.

The really big guys

Beyond hands-on broadcasters like Daher and Jaber, there are more aloof Arab moguls with media investments across the region. Often those investments reflect larger political or financial calculations rather than a strict passion for showbiz.

Al Waleed and frequent business partner Saudi Sheik Saleh Kamel, for example, loom large over the region’s media landscape.

“Prince Al Waleed has political aspirations,” Jaber observes. “He’s essentially opposed to Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri, so it makes sense for him to join his competitor in LBC. He’s using it for his own political agenda.”

It was from Kamel that Al Waleed bought a 49% share in LBC. The two moguls, who initially made their money through canny investments in real estate and banking, set up satcaster ART (now called ADD) together in 1994.

These two are the closest the Arab world has to Western-style tycoons like Murdoch and Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, at least in terms of spending power.

The older Kamel has more conservative programming tastes, while the younger, Westernized Al Waleed is an MTV kind of guy. His vidclipper Rotana, essentially an Arabic MTV, thrives on airing scantily clad singers writhing to the most popular Arab music of the day.

For Tunisia’s Ben Ammar, who with his strong Euro connections helped the duo set up ART in Italy, there’s an additional benefit to their media activities: “Prince Waleed, in particular, reps the good face of Saudi Arabia, part of the young generation trying to show a different image of Arabs abroad.”

What have they wrought?

But for all their success in creating hit TV shows, the Mideast moguls’ lasting effect on the region’s political culture is unclear.

“They have made a significant contribution in pushing forward the form and content of pan-Arab media, but there has been little connection between the impact of their media and the prevailing political cultures of the Mideast,” says Rami Khouri, editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star, the region’s leading English-language paper.

“The media is more pluralistic, daring, timely, comprehensive, argumentative and accountable, but the political systems are still dominated by the same Arab elites. A more liberal media has not pushed us toward more liberal political systems. Perhaps that will come with time.”

The sophisticated, polyglot Ben Ammar has worked more than anyone else at bridging the gaps between East and West through the media, and he contends that the developments of the last few years have been epochal.

“The media in the Arab world has done a lot of good and will continue to do so,” he argues.

The main challenges now lie in how these men can manage an increasingly single, satellite-saturated Arab market, balancing the desire for populist mass entertainment with “decent programs,” as Jaber put it, which are palatable across the region.

After all, they all want to make money, and ever-rising costs aren’t helping.

“We have 120 broadcasters which all, with the exception of a few, lose money. MBC, Orbit and ART combined have lost $4 billion so far. It’s unsustainable,” Jaber says.

In the years to come, Jaber sees the Arab market emulating the U.S. model, where NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox dominate the airwaves.

“I think we’ll have three or four big nets that will stay, with the rest of the channels going to cable or folding,” he opines.

It’s the high costs to which he refers that have enabled Al Waleed and Kamel to establish a grip on the market.

As Jaber points out, “It will be the deepest pockets that survive.”

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