Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal is expanding his media ventures, but instead of investing in the West, the West is now investing in him.
Rupert Murdoch is set to acquire a stake in Bin Talal’s Mideast media titan Rotana. The size of the stake and the coin have yet to be announced.
Rotana is the dominant media force in the Mideast with six TV channels, the region’s most powerful music label and a film production arm. Despite having lauched within the last two years, it already accounts for 50% of all Arab film production, with 22 pics produced in 2005.
Rotana execs are in Cannes to world preem the first Saudi feature, “Keif al hal,” in the market.
Al-Waleed is the third-biggest shareholder in Murdoch’s News Corp., and also has sizeable stakes in Time Warner and Disney. He hopes to use the media to bridge gaps between East and West.
“It’s part of an overall strategy to put Saudi Arabia on the radar and show the real face of Islam and Arabs to the West,” he said. “We cannot accept or tolerate being stigmatized as terrorists forever. Culture has a big role in bridging this gap. It can show the West we are human beings like them.”
Murdoch is in negotiations with Bin Talal, reputedly the world’s eighth-richest man, to buy into Rotana before it goes public sometime next year.
“The important thing is that Rotana is in discussions with the most important global media company,” Al-Waleed told Variety. “Mr. Murdoch said, ‘Prince, we’re on board with you.’ It shows the extent to which the Western media are willing to entertain potential alliances with powerhouses in the media industry in the Arab world.”
Though funding is obviously not an issue, other challenges remain for Al-Waleed, notably conservative local attitudes in the Gulf and the perceptions of Arabs and Muslims in the West, particularly post 9/11.
In Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are banned, Al-Waleed’s royal credentials as the king’s nephew put him in a unique position to influence reform and liberalization.
“There are no cinemas yet — but I would emphasize the word ‘yet.’ I believe there will be cinemas in Saudi Arabia,” he predicted.
As for the way the Muslim world is represented in the West, Al-Waleed has already flexed his muscles to get better coverage.
When satcaster Fox News described unrest in France last year as “Muslim riots,” one phone call to Murdoch saw the banner changed to “civil riots” within a half-hour.
“I don’t talk to him as a shareholder in Rotana. I talk to him as a shareholder in News Corp. With my investments in News Corp., Time Warner and Disney, there’s no doubt these companies are eager to build bridges with the Islamic, Arab and Saudi communities,” Al-Waleed said. “If I can be the small catalyst for that, I will not hesitate for a minute to do it.”