Sacked TV workers urge Prince Alwaleed to pay up

Newspaper ads implore Saudi billionaire to expedite $17m payment allegedly owed to former employees of Lebanese production firm

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been urged in a recent newspaper ad campaign to expedite $17 million in payments allegedly owed by a Lebanese TV-production firm to 400 workers it sacked.

A group of ex-employees of the Production and Acquisition Company (PAC), which filed for liquidation in 2012, took out advertisements in the Lebanese press, and told Al Arabiya they are hopeful Alwaleed will make the payments.

The Arabic-language ads, which have appeared in several Lebanese newspapers, carry an image of the book cover of Alwaleed’s authorized biography by Riz Khan, and ask: “Will the Prince… be just to us, or do we have to reach the conclusion that some books cannot be judged by their covers?”

The ad plays on the Prince’s so-called “virtues and achievements” outlined in his biography, in making the case for payment of what is owed to former PAC staff.

“When our company merged with the companies of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, we were hopeful about our jobs and future since we were joining one of the most powerful, empowered and professional groups of the Prince,” the advert states. “After being arbitrarily dismissed from the Production and Acquisition Company (PAC), due to its poor economic situation, something we reluctantly accepted, we find ourselves on the streets without our due and justified salaries and compensations.

“We have done our best… to lift injustice. But to date, our story is facing chapter after chapter of arbitration and humiliation. It seems that the most important chapter that we missed in his biography was the chapter about us, such a terrible and unjust chapter.”

The issue relates to the fallout from a long-running row between Prince Alwaleed and former Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) chief Pierre Daher.

The two men were once allies, with Prince Alwaleed investing in LBC and the two partnering in Lebanese Media Holdings. But they fell out over several issues and Daher was sidelined as head of the corporation’s production arm, PAC.

After the relationship soured, Prince Alwaleed and his partners took control of LBC SAT and PAC, while Daher retained the local LBC International (LBCI) operation. Notably, PAC became a subsidiary of a unit of Rotana Media Group, which is owned by Alwaleed and other shareholders such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

After PAC went into liquidation in 2012, an agreement is said to have been signed over settlements for former employees – but almost two years on, payments are yet to be made.

That prompted the newspaper ad campaign to launch in February, in which Prince Alwaleed was urged to expedite payments.

Guitta Kiameh, based in Beirut, is part of a committee of ex-PAC employees and was involved in the ad campaign, which she says was carried by newspapers free of charge.

“It’s not a campaign against Alwaleed. It’s a campaign to get our rights,” Kiameh told Al Arabiya News. “We were fired without being paid 2.5 months’ pay and no indemnities.”

Kiameh, a former news reporter at PAC, said that the total amount owed to former staff is $18 million (others put the figure closer to $17m). Despite an agreement made with lawyers after PAC’s liquidation, “nothing was done” about making payments, Kiameh alleges.

Kiameh – who now works as a planning editor for LBCI – says that life has not been easy for many of the 400-odd former PAC employees.

“We had three ex-employees who died, and four have kidney problems,” she said. “We’re going to keep on until we get to Alwaleed… to push him to pay our rights,” she added. “We know he has the money. But we need to push to make him pay… We believe that we will be successful; we are hopeful.”

Kiameh cited a liquidator’s report that said PAC had more than $62 million at the time of its liquidation, a figure that could not be independently confirmed by Al Arabiya. She said that number goes against claims that the company was in financial trouble when it was liquidated. “When we were fired, they said PAC was in great financial trouble. They lied to us,” she said.

Pierre El Daher, chief executive of Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International, confirmed that an agreement was signed to pay off PAC staff. He said the amount owed to them is $17.3m.

“In April 2012 there was an agreement signed by PAC and the employees that were dismissed that they would be paid their indemnities,” he told Al Arabiya News.

Daher said that his firm, LBCI, is “suing Alwaleed both in Paris and in Lebanon.” In France, Daher said an arbitrator had been appointed recently. In Lebanon, he said “LBCI is bringing a case against Alwaleed for fraudulent bankruptcy.”

Al Arabyia News contacted Prince Alwaleed’s office and his Kingdom Holding Company’s press office for a statement.

Enquiries were answered by Fahad Al Sukait, chief executive of Alwaleed’s Rotana Group, who said he was the best person to respond to claims surrounding PAC.

“Prince Alwaleed has nothing to do with this… he’s not directly involved,” Sukait said.

The executive added that the newspapers adverts were “defaming” Prince Alwaleed.

“I don’t know why Prince Alwaleed personally is being dragged into that,” he said. “It’s a very very clear case of defaming him.”

Sukait did not confirm the amount owed to former staff or the amount of money held by PAC upon its liquidation, and disputed Kiameh’s account that PAC had $62 million at the time of liquidation.

He did say however that PAC’s assets upon liquidation exceeded its liabilities to staff – and pointed the finger of blame firmly back at Daher and LBCI for the non-payment of the former PAC employees.

“We realized that the company is bankrupt… We put it under liquidation because it has plenty of assets to pay any dues,” Sukait said.

Sukait hinted that a property owned by PAC is being occupied by Pierre Daher’s LBCI, and because of that it is not available for sale by the liquidators. The sale of the property would have been enough to pay “all the dues” owed to staff, he said.

“My understanding is that somebody, whomever that somebody is… is occupying that property and preventing the liquidator from exercising his rights to sell the property to pay the employees their rights,” he said. “I understand that the liquidator has planned legal proceedings to regain control over that property.”

Daher strongly denied that the he was the reason behind the non-payment of PAC staff salaries, claiming that Rotana still owes $44m in the case. He described Sukait’s claims as “nonsense”.

“The liquidators of PAC confirm in their reports that the companies in the Rotana group have a stand-alone payment obligation to PAC for over 44 [million dollars], which if paid, exceeds by far the dues to employees,” Daher said.

Sukait said that he would like to see the former PAC staff paid promptly – but said this depended on the liquidation of the company’s assets.

“[The person] who stopped the liquidator from being able to liquidate these assets is the one who’s trying to prevent them from getting their payment,” he said.

“We have done our best to support the employees… At the end of the day we have done our utmost to support them, our utmost to secure their rights.”