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Outspoken Saudi prince to launch pan-Arab news channel

RIYADH: An outspoken, billionaire Saudi prince will on Sunday launch a pan-Arab satellite news channel aimed at challenging established networks in the region.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is a nephew of King Abdullah, who died on January 23.

In a highly conservative Islamic kingdom, Alwaleed, who holds no government rank, is unusual for his high profile and periodic comments about economic issues.

Broadcasting from 1300 GMT on Sunday, his Bahrain-based Alarab News Channel will be the latest player in the Arabic-language television market, after Qatar-subsidised Al-Jazeera became the first regional news broadcaster 19 years ago.

It will also be a rival for Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, established in 2003 and owned by Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia’s late King Fahd.

Critics have accused both broadcasters of reflecting their owners’ political views, especially during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Cairo in particular complained about Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood which Qatar was accused of backing.

Egypt arrested three Al-Jazeera reporters who have been charged with spreading false information. They remain in custody pending a retrial.

Al-Arabiya was meanwhile accused of supporting the interests of Saudi Arabia, which like Egypt considers the Brotherhood to be a “terrorist” group.

Both channels deny any slant in their coverage.

‘Accurate, objective’

Jamal Khashoggi, Alarab’s general manager, said the new channel will be even-handed.

“We are not going to take sides,” he told AFP in an interview.

“I think a news channel should not have a political agenda… We should just be a news channel that provides accurate, objective information.”

Khashoggi is a veteran Saudi journalist who was forced to step down from the helm of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Watan daily in 2010 after it ran an opinion column that angered religious conservatives.

He declined to reveal Alarab’s budget but said the channel will have about 280 staff, including correspondents in 30 countries.

Riyadh will be the largest bureau with around 20 employees.

Because Saudi Arabia does not allow independent channels, Alarab had to find an alternative location “so Bahrain is appropriate”, he said, speaking by telephone from the island state which is linked by a causeway to its Saudi ally.

Saudi Arabia ranks 164th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders 2014 World Press Freedom Index.

Bahrain is only just ahead at 163.

Mohammed El Oifi, a specialist in Arab media at Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris, said Alarab will have difficulty breaking the mould.

Arab viewers need their news channels to take a clear or even militant editorial line, he said, because they fill “a political function” in the absence of other forums for debate.

This is reflected in the marginal role of the “objective” BBC Arabic, he said.

That and similar channels such as Sky News Arabia have failed to develop the viewer loyalty of Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, Oifi said.

Alarab is a “political project” to improve Alwaleed’s position, while promoting “liberal discourse” on issues such as women’s rights, Oifi added.

Saudi Arabia is the only country which does not allow women to drive and the sexes are strictly segregated.

Alwaleed chairs Riyadh-based Kingdom Holding Co, which has interests ranging from the Euro Disney theme park to Four Seasons hotels, Citigroup and media giant News Corporation.

He is also majority owner of Rotana Group which runs entertainment TV channels in the Middle East. – AFP

 

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