Google translate
Google +1 button
Twitter button
Facebook button
Cable reference id: #09RIYADH651
“All of them, those in power, and those who want the power, would pamper us, if we agreed to overlook their crookedness by wilfully restricting our activities.” — “Refus Global“, Paul-Émile Borduas

We are forced to temporarily suspend publishing whilst we secure our economic survival. For almost a year we have been fighting an unlawful financial blockade. We cannot allow giant US finance companies to decide how the whole world votes with its pocket. Our battles are costly. We need your support to fight back. Please donate now.
DONATE ›
Legal Costs: $1,200,000
VZCZCXRO0974 OO RUEHBC RUEHDBU RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHDIR RUEHKUK RUEHLH RUEHPW RUEHROV RUEHTRO DE RUEHRH #0651/01 1311050 ZNY SSSSS ZZH O 111050Z MAY 09 FM AMEMBASSY RIYADH TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 0768 INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE RUCNISL/ISLAMIC COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
Hide header S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 RIYADH 000651 SIPDIS NOFORN DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ARP (JHARRIS), R (MARK DAVIDSON), NEA/PPD (WALTER DOUGLAS) 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] SUBJECT: IDEOLOGICAL AND OWNERSHIP TRENDS IN THE SAUDI MEDIA 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. //Okaz// ¶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 saying. ¶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 like. //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 profitable. ¶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. Rundell

Media

Comments

 Do not load Disqus comments widget (Disqus loads and executes third-party Javascript files, which might be deemed undesirable. Setting will take effect next time a page is loaded.)

User-supplied contents reflect the views of their respective authors, and not necessarily the views of the owner and/or moderator(s) of this web site. Posts with embedded links will have to be approved by a moderator. Only links to external web pages which appear to contribute complementary information to specifics in the cable will be allowed. Links to external web pages should not be construed as a statement of support of the external web sites by the owner and/or moderator(s) of cablegatesearch.net.

e-Highligther

Click to send permalink to address bar, or right-click to copy permalink.

Tweet these highlights

Unhighlight all Unhighlight selectionu Highlight selectionh