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Why did Saudi Arabia target billionaire media tycoons in its purge?

- November 16, 2017
Saudi Arabia’s billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in 2015. Alwaleed is one of dozens of the kingdom’s royal, political and business elite currently held by security forces. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

On Nov. 5, Saudi authorities arrested dozens of the kingdom’s royal, political and business elite. Security forces sequestered princes, cabinet ministers and billionaires in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton, as the city’s private airport was shut down to prevent escape by private jet. The detainees face various charges of corruption issued by an all-powerful commission decreed by King Salman mere hours before the arrests and headed by his son, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Among the detainees was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, founder and owner of Kingdom Holding, global businessman, media mogul and one of the world’s wealthiest individuals. Alwaleed was joined in detention by Saleh Kamel, billionaire and owner of Dallah al-Baraka, and Walid al-Ibrahim, brother-in-law of the late King Fahd.

Since the Arab satellite revolution began in 1991, Saudi Arabia has increasingly dominated Arab television, radio, cinema, music and publishing. This month’s developments have serious implications for an already highly consolidated Arab media sphere.

Who are these Saudi media tycoons?

The influence of this troika of Saudi moguls on the Arab media industry cannot be overstated. Together they founded the pioneering companies that have grown into today’s media behemoths, often in partnership with one another. When Ibrahim started the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) in London in 1991, Kamel was one of his chief investors. When Kamel founded Arab Radio and Television (ART) in Italy in 1994, Alwaleed, who owned the Rotana music label, was put in charge of ART’s music channels.

In the 1990s, a pivotal decade in Arab media development, few important transactions in the sector occurred without the involvement of at least one, often two, and occasionally all three of these men.

Since then, these barons have reigned supreme over media empires that provide news and entertainment to not only most Saudis, but also a large majority of Arabs.

Hailing from a family whose business was to guide pilgrims visiting Mecca for the annual pilgrimage or, hajj, Kamel defines himself a pious man. In 1998, he launched Iqraa, with moderate religious and social programming. Ibrahim fancied himself a cautious modernizer, and in 2003, set up the news network al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia’s answer to Al Jazeera and a comparatively “liberal” voice on Saudi social issues.

Alwaleed is the son of Talal Bin Abdulaziz, the “Red Prince” known for rebelling against the monarchy in the 1960s. Alwaleed is a larger-than-life “liberal” figure, who hobnobs with Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and has spoken out in favor of lifting the ban on women driving and incorporating women fully in the Saudi workforce.

Why target these moguls?

Why these men were arrested remains unclear. The famous “mujtahid,” a mysterious and usually reliable Saudi whistleblower with apparent access to the highest echelons of power, tweeted that the three media moguls and others were arrested because the crown prince intended on taking over their fortunes. Alwaleed is the richest Saudi, with a $28 billion fortune that dwarfs King Salman’s net worth of $17 billion. Kamel and Ibrahim are also billionaires. Since the arrest, there have been news reports of frozen bank accounts.

But the crown prince may be eyeing more than these notables’ money.

Mohammed himself can be considered a media mogul. King Salman’s sons directly own one of the largest Arab media conglomerates, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), which has been diversifying from publishing into digital media and recently announced plans to launch a financial news network with Bloomberg. Technically, the crown prince’s half-brothers own the company. But Mohammed’s sway over these outlets is direct.

This is a shift of historic proportion. Traditionally, Saudi royals exercised their influence over media by proxy.

How Saudi influence used to rely on proxies

Pro-royal family business executives used to be allowed to set up offshore media companies. MBC was based in London then moved to Dubai. ART was launched outside of Rome before relocating to Amman. Rotana activities have moved from Beirut to Cairo to Dubai. Even al-Arabiya, the MBC Group’s news network whose editorial line reliably reflected the views of Saudi rulers, was located in Dubai.

Journalists and hosts on Lebanese channels widely watched in Saudi Arabia served as proxies to various princes, giving voice to their agendas on air. One leading Lebanese talk show host said that when Saudi rulers feared that Shiites in the Eastern Province were getting restive in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq, they asked him to host a prominent Shiite Lebanese cleric to deliver a message of nonviolence to Saudi Shiites.

What to expect with direct media control

In contrast, today’s Saudi rulers are increasingly exerting direct media control. Since the ascension of Mohammed, employees at al-Arabiya have lamented the crown prince’s forceful attempts at direct editorial control.

Saudi control is not limited to news. Entertainment is a hallmark of the crown prince’s plan for a modern, oil-weaned Saudi Arabia. In May 2016, a royal decree created the new General Entertainment Authority. In September 2017, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, closely tied to the crown prince, announced a new company, capitalized with $2.7 billion, to invest in entertainment.

Until their arrest, Ibrahim and Kamel were the undisputed Saudi entertainment barons, favoring the same kind of “liberal” fare as the crown prince. This kind of entertainment was often politicized. Reality television competition that pitted candidates against each other triggered discussions of political issues like voting and elections. Television drama series imported from Turkey provoked the ire of fiery Friday preachers, with one going as far as obliquely accusing Alwaleed and Ibrahim of “having declared war on God and his Prophet.”

By imprisoning these media moguls, the crown prince is gaining financial leverage over some of Saudi Arabia’s richest men, concentrating an astonishing amount of Arab media power in his own hands and positioning himself to control a nascent entertainment sector that is poised to grow explosively in the near future.

After decades of Arab media consolidation in Saudi hands, we are now witnessing an unprecedented concentration of Saudi and, by extension, Arab news and entertainment media in the hands of one man.

Marwan M. Kraidy is the Anthony Shadid Chair in Global Media, Politics and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, and an Andrew Carnegie Fellow. His latest book is “The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World” (Harvard University Press). You can follow him @MKraidy