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Saudi-UK media tie-up: Targeting the non-Arabic-speaking Middle East

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Long satisfied to attempt to dominate pan-Arab media and battle it out with Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network, Saudi Arabia has now set its hegemonic sights on influencing the media landscape of the non-Arabic speaking greater Middle East.

In the wake of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s concentration last year of control of Saudi-owned pan-Arab media in an anti-corruption power and asset grab, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) this week announced a tie up with Britain’s Independent news website to launch services in Urdu, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic.

The announcement provided no details of the business model or whether and, if so, how the SRMG-owned, independent-branded websites would become commercially viable. That may not be an issue from the Independent’s perspective, given that the deal amounts to the British publication licensing its brand and content to a Saudi partner.

The bulk of the content of the new websites is slated to be produced by SRMG journalists in London, Islamabad, Istanbul and New York, with the Independent contributing only translated articles from its English-language website.

The sites, operated out of Riyadh and Dubai, would produce “highest-quality, free-thinking, independent news, insight and analysis on global affairs and local events,” the Independent said.

SRMG publishes the English-language Arab News and Arabic-language Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, newspapers operating within the constraints of tight Saudi censorship that do not challenge Saudi policies.

SRMG was chaired until he recently was appointed minister of culture by Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud. An unknown member of the Saudi ruling family, Prince Bader made headlines last year when he paid a record $450m for a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ, allegedly as a proxy bidder for Prince Mohammed.

Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, a Saudi banker with no track record in media acquisitions, last year bought a 30 percent stake in the Independent. An executive of NCB Capital, a subsidiary of government-controlled National Commercial Bank, Mr. Abuljadayel said at the time he was investing on his personal account.

A cache of Saudi diplomatic cables leaked in 2015 documented a pattern of Saudi chequebook diplomacy that aimed to buy positive coverage of the kingdom by European, Middle Eastern and African media who were encouraged to put “learned” Saudi guests on talk shows and counter “media hostile to the kingdom.”

Cables by the late Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, suggested that Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, and another Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, Al Hayat, refrain from criticizing Lebanon and Russia.

Saudi funding ranged from the bailout of financially troubled media to donations, the purchase of thousands of subscriptions, and all-expenses paid trips to the kingdom. It was often driven by Saudi Arabia’s covert public diplomacy war with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s near monopoly on staid pan-Arabic media was broken in 1996 with the launch of Al Jazeera and its free-wheeling, hard hitting reporting and talk shows. Al Jazeera’s disruption of conservative, Arab state broadcasting prompted Waleed bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, a brother in law of the late King Fahd, to launch Al Arabiya as an anti-dote.

The rise of Al Jazeera cemented a realization in the kingdom that it needed to expand from print media into broadcasting. The need for broadcasting was initially driven home six years earlier when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Saudi authorities banned Saudi media from reporting the invasion only to discover on the third day that Saudis were getting their news from foreign media outlets, among which CNN.

The Saudi-Qatari battle for control of the air waves escalated in the run-up to this year’s World Cup in Russia. With Al Jazeera and beIN, the network’s sports franchise, blocked in the kingdom as part of the 13-month-old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, Saudi Arabia initially turning a blind eye to beOutQ, a bootlegging operation operating out of the kingdom that used a satellite that is co-owned by the Saudi government.

Threatened by FIFA with punitive action, Saudi Arabia began cracking down on beOutQ and said it welcomed legal action in the kingdom being initiated by the world soccer body. At the same time, Saudi Arabia explored ways to challenge beIN’s broadcasting rights.

The choice of languages for the Independent websites suggests that SRMG sees the deal as strengthening its brand while supporting the kingdom in its battles with Qatar and Iran and quest for regional hegemony.

The launch of a Farsi website targets the kingdom’s arch rival Iran. Leaving politics aside, Iranians, confronted with an economic crisis that is being exasperated by harsh US sanctions, are unlikely to subscribe or advertise on the website. The same is true for Saudi businesses in the absence of diplomatic relations and given Saudi backing for the sanctions.

The Independent’s Turkish website will have to compete in a heavily populated media landscape that has largely been muzzled by President Recep Tayeb Erdogan. The website’s significance lies in the fact that Turkey supports Qatar in the spat that pits the Gulf state against Saudi Arabia and its allies, maintains close ties to Iran, and challenges Saudi regional ambitions in Palestine as well as the Horn of Africa.

In many ways, Urdu-speaking Pakistan, one of the world’s most populous Muslim nations that borders on Iran, has long supported the kingdom militarily, and is home to the world’s largest Shia Muslim majority, could prove to be the most lucrative element of SRMG’s tie up with the Independent.

In contrast to Turkey, Saudi Arabia enjoys empathy in major segments of Pakistan’s population, hosts a sizeable Pakistani community, has strong support among the country’s religious scholars as well as ties to influential militants whom the military is seeking to ease into mainstream politics, and funds religious media outlets.

At the bottom line, the SRMG-Independent tie-up may be for the kingdom less about business and more about soft power.

“A channel is a very economical way to influence people. Bang for your buck, it’s much cheaper than guns. It is about controlling the discourse, and for Saudis about being in charge,” said Hugh Miles, author of Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. Mr. Miles’ analysis applies as much to broadcasting as it does to online media.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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