Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 20:17 pm (KSA) 17:17 pm (GMT)

Al Arabiya News Channel turns five

The news studio of Al Arabiya TV (File)
The news studio of Al Arabiya TV (File)

Al-Arabiya, one of two leading pan-Arab satellite news channels, marked its fifth anniversary on Monday saying it was targeting every Arabic-language speaker across the globe.

"We aim to reach every Arabic speaker around the world, strengthen our coverage in places where we are already established, and establish a presence in places where we are absent," information chief Nasser al-Sarami told AFP.

Five years after its launch from Dubai in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya remains in tough competition with its older rival, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, with each capturing a market share that largely reflects political and ideological divisions in the Arab world, observers say.

"Al-Jazeera expresses a populist view that champions the culture of resistance and tries to be popular and populist at the same time, whereas Al-Arabiya speaks for what is known as the 'Arab moderate bloc' led by Saudi Arabia and tries to be both popular and conservative, while occasionally flirting with populism," said Lebanese journalist Abdul Wahhab Badrakhan.

Saudi capital -- which funded London-based Arab publications in the 1980s and 1990s -- later expanded its scope to satellite televisions, said Badrakhan, who worked in the British capital for many years as deputy editor of the pan-Arab Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat.

Al-Arabiya is part of the MBC Group – a news and entertainment broadcaster – owned and chaired by Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's late King Fahd. It moved its headquarters from London to Dubai in 2003.

Al-Jazeera, which since hitting the airwaves in 1996 has expanded into a network that includes an English-language channel, is based in the Qatari capital Doha and subsidized by the government of gas-rich Qatar.

Future plans

"Five years is a short time. Yet, Al-Arabiya has managed to change a great deal in the Arab media landscape," Sarami said.

Al-Arabiya succeeded in "introducing a civilized professional discourse that differentiates between opinion and analysis on the one hand and hard news on the other," he said. "Al-Arabiya has also offered a platform for different parties to express their views."

In the coming years, Al-Arabiya will seek to "enhance its presence in the Arab Maghreb (North African Arab countries) and Europe by reaching out to Arabs living there. We will also strive to expand our coverage of east Asia and South America," Sarami said.

To mark its fifth anniversary, Al-Arabiya, which has dozens of offices and correspondents in Arab countries and key world capitals, will also spruce up its image and use a new state-of-the-art studio, he said.

Badrakhan said both Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera have "raised the political ceiling of coverage and broken taboos imposed on (Arab) print media."

Al-Jazeera gained world fame through its exclusive reporting of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the airing of videotapes of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, earning the wrath of Washington, which has accused it of being a mouthpiece for Islamist extremists, notably in Iraq.

Al-Arabiya has sought to project itself as more balanced and objective, and has become the medium of choice for U.S. officials seeking to reach out to Arab audiences.

The channel has aired several exclusive interviews with President George W. Bush and other top U.S. officials over the past few years.

BBC Launch

As Al-Arabiya looks to build on the achievements of its relatively short life, the competition is expected to toughen with the anticipated launch of an Arabic television channel by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) next week.

BBC Arabic Television will go live at 1000 GMT on March 11, initially broadcasting for 12 hours per day before becoming a 24-hour operation later this year.

It is the BBC's first publicly-funded international television service and comes 11 years after a previous foray into the Middle East television market ended in failure.

The British taxpayer-funded venture aims to provide the Middle East's only "tri-media" -- television, radio and online -- service but came at the cost of more than 200 jobs in a controversial restructuring of BBC World Service radio.

The new channel "will reflect the breadth of the Arab audience's interests," BBC Arabic head Hosam El Sokkari said, announcing the launch.

He drew the battle lines with established broadcasters, claiming the new channel will better serve Arab audiences.

"It can be their ears and eyes -- not just in the countries where people live, but throughout the region and around the rest of the world," he said.

BBC Arabic Television, which aims to build on the existing BBC Arabic radio and Internet services, will be free to anyone with a satellite or cable connection in north Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf.

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