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Al Jazeera vs Al Arabiya

Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, CNN, BBC ArabicThe Doha-based, CNN-style Al Jazeera (meaning “The peninsula” or “the island”) started broadcasting in late 1996, thanks largely to a $150 million five-year grant from the emir of Qatar. And with it, the Arab perspective on television and information was subjected to a total revolution; for the first time, a regional station broke the sacrosanct rule that Arab regimes are not to be criticized. No wonder then that in just a few years, Al Jazeera reporters (many of them defectors from the still born BBC Arabic TV) gained recognition and appreciation all over the Arab world.

Eight years later, Al Jazeera - then the most identifiable Arabic brand in the world - met heavy competition with the establishment of Dubai-based Al Arabiya. The newcomer arrived with substantial backing - an initial investment of $300 million financed by the Saudi-controlled pan-Arab satellite TV pioneer MBC, Lebanon’s Hariri Group, and other investors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait (which was later withdrawn) and the Gulf states.

Media culture Al Arabiya was set up as a rival to Al Jazeera, with ambitions clearly inscribed in the long-lasting antagonism between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“Al Jazeera created Qatar!” says Beirut-based French researcher Franck Mermier; “Qatar won its bet to exist politically against Saudi Arabia by using a modern ‘weapon’: media,” explains Moroccan researcher Abdellatif Bensfia.

Today, Al Jazeera, with 32 bureaus worldwide and deals to provide CNN with regional footage, claims to attract over 40 million Arab viewers a day, mostly from 15 to 40 year old Muslim men. Al Jazeera also launched in 2003 a pay TV sports station (Al Jazeera Sports won exclusive broadcast rights to UEFA Champions League matches across the Middle East and North Africa for four years last February), as well as a children’s channel and a documentary channel in 2006.

But Al Arabiya, as its name shows, counterattacked by promoting a new, modern Arabism based on mass culture with a global network of correspondents and offices in over 40 major cities. Its grid has been designed to attract “all kind of information seekers”, whether young, old, male or female, who are rather perceived as potential culture and media consumers. Similarly, while Al Jazeera has used well established and recognized TV pros, Al Arabiya placed the emphasis on young, promising talents, taking also part in various festivals and competitions where it endorsed young directors.

Objectivity, sensationalism and modernism In its early days, Al-Jazeera ruffled various Arab feathers by giving air-time to Arab dissidents and criticizing regimes (notably Egypt and Jordan). The station’s access to sensitive information during the war in Afghanistan and later the US invasion of Iraq, as well as its broadcasting of pre-recorded messages of Osama Bin Laden, earned the Qatari station a label in the West of being a “mouthpiece” of Al-Qaeda.

This loud-mouth attitude may have seduced Arab masses but with the emir’s grant money spent, the station had to rely on independent funding, namely advertising revenues which in the region depend largely on Western brands and advertiser. A true challenge for Al Jazeera that refuses to censor itself.

It then comes as no surprise that Al Arabiya quickly positioned itself as epitomizing “Arab modernism”, addressing Arabs and non Arabs in a rational, “daring but not controversial” way. Trying to steer away from the alleged partiality of its Qatari competitor, the more mollifying Al Arabiya informed that “We are not going to make problems for Arab countries… We’ll stick with the truth, but there’s no sensationalism.”

This didn’t keep it from being banned, as well as Al Jazeera, from reporting from Iraq in 2003 by the Iraqi Governing Council.

Windows for the world Pan-Arab news channels such as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera do not simply target regional audience, they’re also looking for a broader public of Arab nationals living abroad, Westerners and Asians. Al Jazeera says they attract 175,000 households daily in the US alone.

To break the language barrier and “bring people and continents together”, the Doha station launched Al Jazeera English in March 2006, recruiting TV pros from BBC, APTN, ITV, CNN and CNBC. The station has broadcasting centers in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC and supporting bureaus worldwide. Al Jazeera English eventually targets a potential global audience of over one billion English speakers.

Such a move has been studied and rejected by Al Arabiya’s management, with Abdul Rahman Al Rashed, general manager of the group’s Arabic news service saying that “the English equivalent would have little commercial value.”

Both stations claim not to feel threatened by the launch this month of contender BBC Arabic Television, 11 years after its first foray in the region. But this latest arrival on the regional TV scene well shows how much news is important to the Arab world and may make things even more difficult for competitors in an already tight advertising market.

 
 

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