Viewing cable 09RIYADH651, IDEOLOGICAL AND OWNERSHIP TRENDS IN THE SAUDI MEDIA
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|09RIYADH651||2009-05-11 10:10||2010-12-07 21:09||SECRET//NOFORN||Embassy Riyadh|
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S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 RIYADH 000651 SIPDIS NOFORN DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ARP (JHARRIS), R (MARK DAVIDSON), NEA/PPD (WALTER DOUGLAS) EO 12958 DECL: 10/20/2050 TAGS PGOV, PHUM, PTER, ECON KISL, SA SUBJECT: IDEOLOGICAL AND OWNERSHIP TRENDS IN THE SAUDI MEDIA Classified By: CDA David Rundell for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). ¶1. (S) Summary: The Saudi regulatory system offers the al-Saud regime a means to manipulate the nation’s print media to promote its own agenda without exercising day-to-day oversight over journalists, and Saudi journalists are free to write what they wish provided they do not criticize the ruling family or expose government corruption. In addition, most media in Saudi Arabia--print and electronic--are owned by royal family members, and accordingly self-censorship is the order of the day. In comparison to a few years ago, however, the media business in Saudi Arabia is dynamic, fueled by increased demand by Saudi and pan-Arab audiences, new licensing agreements with US and other international media, and an unprecedented level of openness to outside ideas. 2.In interviews with Embassy and Consulate Jeddah officers before the early December Eid holiday, XXXXXXXXXXXX editors and XXXXXXXXXXXX TV managers outlined key elements of these trends and adumbrated how the long hand of the al-Saud--motivated by profit and politics--retains a strong hold over media in this sophisticated new environment, through means ranging from refined Interior Ministry procedures for recalcitrant journalists, to directives by King Abdallah himself to adopt progressive perspectives as an antidote to extremist thinking. End summary. //Family Business?// ¶3. (S) Embassy press officers met recently XXXXXXXXXXXX. According to Shuaa Capital, a Gulf-based financial services firm, SRMG is the largest publisher in the country, with a global readership well in excess of 180 million and an aggregate market share of 46.1%. ¶4. (S) According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, Prince Waleed bin Talal, he told us, now owns 35% of SMRG, with “private investors” controlling the rest. Financial reports we acquired list Saudi businessman Mohammed Hussein Ali al-Amoudi as owning 57.70% of SRMG at the beginning of 2008, which on paper would give him (and others he may represent) control of this powerful media concern. ¶5. (S/NF) It is worth noting, however, that other Saudi editors we’ve spoken to always refer to the Saudi Research and Marketing Group as being “owned” by Prince Salman, despite the fact that XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that he is not a shareholder and the official holdings of XXXXXXXXXXXX amount to only ten percent of the company. When this was noted by emboff to one of our press contacts, he told us that it was well-known that Prince Salman owns SRMG and controls its direction through his son Faisal. //New Direction// ¶6. (S)XXXXXXXXXXXX is representative of a trend we have noted in all media here: the increase of well-educated, relatively pro-US Saudis in editorial positions. Technocratically-minded with a journalism degree from a US university, XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that the entire SRMG organization has been directed to adopt a “professional, western-style approach” to the media that would both increase revenue and reinforce “modern ideas” that the SAG leadership wishes to purvey as an antidote to extremist ideology. ¶7. (SBU) Although originally founded as an economic daily, “Al Eqtisadiah” has long been equally known for its political content, often printing editorials and opinion harshly critical of the US on a number of fronts. XXXXXXXXXXXX. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that XXXXXXXXXXXX recently had a three-hour discussion with one of Rupert Murdoch’s sons on a deal to publish an Arabic-language version of the Wall Street Journal, and that SRMG is trying to win a contract to publish the International Herald Tribune (uncensored, he emphasized) in Saudi Arabia. XXXXXXXXXXXX RIYADH 00000651 002 OF 004 //The MBC Group// ¶8. (S) A similar ideological and ownership pattern characterizes the hugely-successful Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) group, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX. ¶9. (S/NF) During a visit to the US Embassy in November for a visa in preparation for the King’s UNGA and White House summit meetings, XXXXXXXXXXXX told press officer that while MBC is owned by King Fahd’s brother-in-law (the non-royal Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim), fifty percent of the profits of the MBC empire go to King Fahd’s youngest son (and al-Ibrahim’s maternal nephew) Abdulaziz bin Fahd. XXXXXXXXXXXX on issues relating to al-Arabiya and other MBC channels. When asked if the thirty-something prince was interested only in the profits of the station, or if he also took an active role in the ideological direction of al-Arabiya, XXXXXXXXXXXX whispered with a grimace, “Both.” ¶10. (S/NF) In a meeting at his XXXXXXXXXXXX office XXXXXXXXXXXX with Consulate and Embassy press officers, XXXXXXXXXXXX because of the SAG’s concern that young Saudis were particularly vulnerable to the calls of extremists, and that the station now targets its moderate news broadcasts to the 14-18 year old demographic in short presentations of three minutes or less. He also said that the stations website, Arabiya Net, appeals to a pan-Arab audience and gets about 100,000 visitors per day. Al Arabiya and other MBC channels, he said, present programming that they hope counters the influence of al-Jazeera and fosters “moderate” perspectives among the country’s youth. //David Letterman, Agent of Influence// ¶11. (S) XXXXXXXXXXXX said the American programming on channels 4 and 5 were proving the most popular among Saudis. A look at the December 17 programming menu for MBC channel 4 reveals a 24-hour solid block of such programs as CBS and ABC Evening News, David Letterman, Desperate Housewives, Friends and similar fare, all uncensored and with Arabic subtitles. Channel 5 features US films of all categories, also with Arabic subtitles. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that this programming is also very popular in remote, conservative corners of the country, where he said “you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in western dress” who are now interested in the outside world. ¶12. (S) Over coffee in a Jeddah Starbucks, XXXXXXXXXXXX, and XXXXXXXXXXXX elaborated on the changes in the Saudi media environment. “The government is pushing this new openness as a means of countering the extremists,” XXXXXXXXXXXX told Riyadh press officer. “It’s still all about the War of Ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that ‘Al Hurra’ and other US propaganda never could. Saudis are now very interested in the outside world, and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.” ¶13. (S) So effective has US programming been, said XXXXXXXXXXXX, that it is widely assumed that the USG must be behind it. Some believe, he said, that Prince Talal’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and its sister company Twentieth Century Fox has a clear ideological motive behind it, noting that the Fox Movie Channel on “Rotana” is available for free to anyone with a satellite dish. Both XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, liberal-minded supporters of US democracy and society with little use for conspiracy theory, clearly believed this was the case. ¶14. (S) While revenue from commercials on Rotana’s Fox Movie Channel probably matter more to Prince Waleed than the dissemination of western ideas (MBC and Rotana are in a bitter battle for market share) it is easy to understand why XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX believe that this programming is having a profound effect on the values and worldviews of Saudi audiences. During the recent Eid holiday, Rotana’s “Fox Movies” channel repeatedly aired two mawkish US dramas (again with Arabic subtitles) featuring respectful, supportive American husbands dealing with spouses suffering from addiction problems--in one case gambling (lost the kids’ college funds and then told her college professor husband it was because he was boring) and the other alcohol (smashing cars and china when she RIYADH 00000651 003 OF 004 wasn’t assaulting the husband and child.) These films and others broadcast over the Eid offer models of supportive behavior in relationships, as well as exemplary illustrations of heroic honesty in the face of corruption (“Michael Clayton”) and respect for the law over self-interest (“Insomnia.”) ¶15. (C) Saudi-produced religious programming on ART and Rotana also departs from past models. Rotana’s popular religious channel “Al Risala” features a hip, clean-shaven Saudi in western clothes offering practical religious advice in a calm and friendly manner. Jeddah-based Arab Radio and Television company (ART) (owned by Saleh al-Kamel and according to our contacts being edged aside by MBC and Rotana) recently featured an MTV-style music video clip on its “Iqraa” religious channel depicting a group of dissolute young Saudi men who give up their carousing and return to observance. They are then shown succeeding in sales presentations and other interactions at work, gaining the admiration of their colleagues and supervisors. The young men continue to dress in standard attire, remain clean-shaven and are fully integrated into normal, workaday Saudi society. The message of moderation in the religious realm could not be clearer. //The Idol// ¶16. (S) The Kingdom’s chattering classes aren’t the only ones noticing the movement towards moderation and rapprochement with the outside world that is reflected in print and television media. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that religious conservatives call the Saudi newspaper “Al-Watan” (owned by Prince Khaled al-Faisal) “Al-Wathan”--the idol. XXXXXXXXXXXX said his network is referred to as XXXXXXXXXXXX, and that pan-Arab daily “Al Sharq al Awsat,” with its distinctive green-colored pages, is known as “Khadraa al Domon”--”green plant from the dung heap,” a metaphor from one of Prophet’s hadiths warning young men of feminine corruption wrapped in meretricious allure. ¶17. (S) Extremist elements, said all of these contacts, have been largely deprived of their public voice in the media and on television, but remain a diminished but still potent force in Saudi Arabia. When reporting officer noted the enormous security progress that allowed him to sit outside a crowded Starbucks less than two blocks away from the Jeddah Consulate--something that would have been unthinkable two years earlier--XXXXXXXXXXXX shook his head. “You (Americans) still have to be careful. They’re still out there,” he said, referring to violent extremists. //Okaz// ¶18. (S) In a meeting with Jeddah CG and XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX was blunt when asked about SAG efforts in countering extremist thinking. “King Abdallah was here,” he said, pointing around his well-appointed office XXXXXXXXXXXX in Jeddah. “He told us that conservative elements in Saudi society do not understand true Islam, and that people needed to be educated” on the subject. King Abdallah, he said, used a metaphor of a donkey to explain how the religious police use the wrong approach. “They take a stick and hit you with it, saying ‘Come donkey, it’s time to pray.’ How does that help people behave like good Muslims?” XXXXXXXXXXXX quoted the king as saying. ¶19. (S) XXXXXXXXXXXX also told us that he had taken over the XXXXXXXXXXXX establishment only two months ago at the direction of the Minister of Information, and that one of his first orders of business was to enact dramatic cuts in the sprawling editorial division. It was clear by the direction of the conversation that XXXXXXXXXXXX, intends to make sure that the paper falls in line with the SAG’s message. //The Stick// ¶20. (S/NF) Although all chief editor positions in Saudi Arabia must RIYADH 00000651 004 OF 004 be approved by the Minister of Information, it is the job of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to take action against editors and writers who refuse to follow government directives and policies. In the past, the MOI played a largely reactive role in this regard through its Supreme Information Council, which would discuss questionable material and order editors to be scolded or fired, or at times ban publication of the paper for a certain period of time. ¶21. (S/NF) According to our contacts, however, a more effective system is in place. Instead of being fired or seeing their publications shut down, editors now are fined SR 40,000 ($10,600) out of their own salaries for each objectionable piece that appears in their newspaper. Journalists, too, are held to account. Instead of the Supreme Information Council in Riyadh taking the lead in tracking what journalists write, there are now MOI committees in each Saudi city that know their community well and have a keen ear for who is talking about what. If these MOI operatives detect a problematic pattern in a journalist’s writing (or even hear through channels that he or she is heading down a certain line of inquiry), they will invite the journalist for a chat, during which they will discuss the origin of these perspectives, suggest alternative approaches, ask after the family, etc.,.. These mechanisms, our contacts say, have been very effective in reining in media opinion that the SAG doesn’t like. //Al-Hayat and Khaled bin Sultan// ¶22. (S/NF) One of the exceptions to the talking-point consistency of most Saudi media is pan-Arab daily “Al-Hayat,” which is owned by Deputy Defense Minister Khaled bin Sultan. XXXXXXXXXXXX. ¶23. (S/NF) When this rather more dynamic editorial environment at “Al-Hayat” was noted to XXXXXXXXXXXX he told us that Khaled bin-Sultan actually does not involve himself in the workings of the paper, provided it never criticizes the royal family or SAG policy. Al-Hayat, he explained, has more credibility in the Arab world than rival Al-Sharq al-Awsat, and had to be more daring than other Saudi print media. “Besides,” said XXXXXXXXXXXX, “information is power for the al-Saud, and owning Al-Hayat gives Khaled bin Sultan more influence in the family.” ¶24. (S) Comment: In keeping with other initiatives such as the Interfaith Dialogue and plans for educational reform, the SAG has clearly made a strategic decision to open the country to outside opinion, perspectives and culture to root out the vestiges of the extremist ideology and vision that threatened their rule. At the same time, they have refined their methods of control over editors and journalists in an effort to control the spread of these and other dissident ideas. End comment. Rundell