Cable reference id: #09RIYADH651

Since social media emerged the importance of the conventional media is becoming smaller and smaller. So it is in terms of the global markets as when Fintech Ltd started growing, the non-online trading was losing positions and this trend continues even today.

Reference id aka Wikileaks id #206346  ? 

SubjectIdeological And Ownership Trends In The Saudi Media
OriginEmbassy Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)
Cable timeMon, 11 May 2009 10:50 UTC
Referenced by09RIYADH1573
  • Time unknown: Original unredacted version, leaked to Wikileaks
  • Tue, 7 Dec 2010 21:30: First publication, original content redacted
  • Thu, 1 Sep 2011 23:24: Re-published, original content redacted
  • Thu, 8 Sep 2011 13:29: Original unredacted version published, with HTML goodies

DE RUEHRH #0651/01 1311050
O 111050Z MAY 09
Hide header
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 RIYADH 000651



E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/20/2050
TAGS: PGOV [Internal Governmental Affairs], PHUM [Human Rights], PTER [Terrorists and Terrorism], ECON [Economic Conditions] KISL [Islamic Issues], SA [Saudi Arabia]

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, seven senior editors and satellite 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 with Dr. Abdul Wahab
al-Faiz, (protect) editor-in-chief of Saudi Arabic daily
“Al-Eqtisadiah” and former editor of the internationally-distributed
weekly magazine “al-Majallah”: two of SRMG’s diverse holdings, which
include fifteen daily, weekly and monthly publications (among them
flagship pan-Arab daily “Al-Sharq Al-Awsat” and the English language
“Arab News”.) 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 chief editor al-Faiz, Prince Faisal bin Salman,
the son of Riyadh governor Prince Salman, is chairman of the board
and owns around seven percent of the company, while the family of his
late brother Ahmed owns three percent. 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 al-Faiz told us
that he is not a shareholder and the official holdings of his son
Faisal and those of his late son Ahmed 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) Chief editor al-Faiz 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, al-Faiz 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. Under the tenure of al-Faiz, however,
“Al-Eqtisadiah” over the past few years has returned to its economic
roots, gradually moving away from political opinion and focusing on
themes of interest to the region’s business elite. Al-Faiz told us
that he and his board (at the behest of Prince Waleed bin-Talal)
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. He also said he publishes up to 30% (also uncensored) of
each issue of “The Economist” in “Al Majallah.”

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
Khalid Al-Matrafi (protect), the regional director of the MBC’s “Al
Arabiya” news channel, the second most popular news channel in Saudi
Arabia after al-Jazeera.

¶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,
al-Matrafi 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. He also
said that he speaks daily with Abdulaziz 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, the elderly al-Matrafi, an old-style Saudi
editor in his mid-seventies who is said to have close connections to
the SAG, whispered with a grimace, “Both.”

¶10. (S/NF) In a meeting at his Jeddah office last week with Consulate
and Embassy press officers, al-Matrafi told us that he had been
brought in to manage Al Arabiya 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) Al-Matrafi 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. Al-Matrafi 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, the chief editor of the
English-language “Saudi Gazette,” Mohammed al-Shoukany, and deputy
editor Abdallah al-Shehri (protect both) elaborated on the changes in
the Saudi media environment. “The government is pushing this new
openness as a means of countering the extremists,” al-Shoukany 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 al-Shoukany, 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
Shoukany and al-Shehri, 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 al-Matrafi, al-Shoukany and
al-Shehri 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.
Al-Shoukany told us that religious conservatives call the Saudi
newspaper “Al-Watan” (owned by Prince Khaled al-Faisal)
“Al-Wathan”–the idol. Al-Matrafi of Al Arabiya said his network is
referred to as “Al Abraiya”-“Hebrew”, 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–al-Shoukany shook his head. “You
(Americans) still have to be careful. They’re still out there,” he
said, referring to violent extremists.


¶18. (S) In a meeting with Jeddah CG and Embassy press officer,
Mohammed al-Tunisi (protect), the new editor of “Okaz” (which also
publishes the English-language “Saudi Gazette”) was blunt when asked
about SAG efforts in countering extremist thinking. “King Abdallah
was here,” he said, pointing around his well-appointed office on the
top floor of the Okaz building 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?” al-Tunisi quoted the king as

¶19. (S) Al-Tunisi also told us that he had taken over the Okaz
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, cutting the
number of full and part-time writers from 400 to about 150. “Okaz,”
which has a distribution of about 150,000 and is the most popular
paper in the Hijaz and third most popular in Riyadh, is one of only
two major Saudi print media that do not have an al-Saud among its
share-holders. Owned by a consortium of Jeddah businessmen, the
paper was always popular because it featured an array of opinion that
pushed the borders of government tolerance, ranging from plaintive
calls by liberals for civil society reform to coded, “dog whistle”
threats from religious extremists. It was clear by the direction of
the conversation that al-Tunisi, who recently received an award from
the Interior Ministry for his paper’s coverage of the Haj, 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

//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. Al-Hayat’s Saudi Arabia
bureau chief, Riyadh-based Jameel al-Thayabi, and its Jeddah managing
editor Hisham Kaaki are tough-minded young editors who do not shy
away from confrontation. Embassy press officer visited al-Thayabi in
October in an effort to convince him not to run an inaccurate and
poorly-sourced story accusing the embassy of violating Saudi law in
repatriating AMCITs married to Saudi spouses and their children. When
emboff noted that such a story implicitly suggested that the Saudi
government was complicit with the US in violation of its own laws,
al-Thayabi shrugged and said, “It’s a human rights issue.” Emboff got
the distinct impression that al-Thayabi thought himself
well-protected from official ire by his relationship with Khaled bin
Sultan, whom he noted later was happy as long as “Al-Hayat” was

¶23. (S/NF) When this rather more dynamic editorial environment at
“Al-Hayat” was noted to al-Shoukany of “The Saudi Gazette,” 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 al-Shoukany,
“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.