Full interview: MBC chairman Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim
Media boss describes group’s humble beginnings in 1991 to its emergence as the Arab world’s biggest TV broadcaster
In a rare public interview, MBC chairman Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim this week described how the media group grew from humble beginnings in 1991 to become the Arab world’s biggest TV broadcaster.
Sheikh Waleed, speaking at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai, described the early struggle to get distribution for MBC’s first channel, back when the group was based in London.
He went on to describe the launch in 2003 of the Al Arabiya News Channel, of which this website is part.
In a wide-ranging interview with Adel al-Toraifi, editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, Sheikh Waleed described how MBC Group may evolve in the future, with the possible launch of more channels catering to specific Arab markets.
Q&A with MBC Group chairman Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim, and Adel al-Toraifi, editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat
Q. (Adel al-Toraifi) You are one of the most influential figures in the media. Why do you avoid media appearances?
A. (Sheikh Waleed) I’m keen on the media but unfortunately there are currently a lot of changes in the landscape. There are great differences in the balances that were prevailing in the Arab world. After the Arab Spring, changes on the political scene have influenced the media landscape a lot. There were attempts to distort the image of the media, the school that we belong to.
I started my work 30 years ago, having graduated in 1984. I started working for our company in Saudi Arabia in 1989. We decided to establish the first MBC channel in London. Since 1989, many professional customs and traditions we learned have changed. Moreover, some Arab countries and regimes are trying to exert pressure or control media institutions. Clearly, there is censorship of the media in many Arab countries, internally and externally. We also have the problem of terrorism targeting freedom of expression, and the media directly.
It is clear for everybody that MBC and Al Arabiya mainly has lost a number of journalists and I’m really keen on remembering them today. We always remember them on such occasions.
You started in Arab production in the 1980s, with a focus on documentaries and on Saudi Arabia. How were you attracted to media and to TV specifically?
This is related to my studies in the United States. When I met American and foreign students who were studying in the U.S., all of us tried to find out more about our respective countries. They used to ask me about some basic things about Arab world. This was before the internet such technological developments. At that time, I sensed there was a lack of information, mainly about Saudi Arabia, and I think it was because we were closed – we weren’t open in KSA.
Between 1978 and the King Fahd era there was great prosperity in Saudi Arabia. Many projects were implemented, and this was a great era. But no one knew anything about it. I met the deputy Minister of Information and told him we have an idea to make some documentaries about what’s happening in KSA. He was very excited and he told me that we have a real problem in the quality of content of what is broadcast on Saudi television. And he asked me to recruit foreign experts in order to work on quality documentaries. We started the project in 1985; this was our first agreement with the experts. And this lasted until the late 1980s.
In 1991 you launched MBC Group. Why did you choose London as its base?
It was logical. The MBC idea started in 1987 or 1988, when Arab countries were relying on government media. The very idea of commercial TV was completely ruled out except for in Lebanon, where there were private stations. London at the time was for us a refuge, the only place where we could have freedom of expression, freedom of thinking… in order to establish a pan-Arab group.
But we had a problem accessing the public, the audience. How could we attract audiences? I met many officials from Arab countries. We started in Egypt, where Mr Safwat El-Sherif was the Minister of Information at that time. I discussed with him the possibility of broadcasting in Egypt, and he refused completely. Most of the Arab countries refused, except for the King of Morocco, who allowed us to broadcast there; also the governor of Bahrain at that time, and after that Kuwait following the liberation. So for a brief period we were able to access a certain audience share – something that was short-lived given that our transmissions were later cancelled. Yet that coincided with the emergence of broadcasting via satellite, although they were banned in some Gulf countries.
What about the brand name MBC?
It was the Middle East Broadcasting Centre in English. Of course we had ABC, the BBC, CBS. And we decided to choose a similar brand name that we felt suitable for our group.
When MBC launched, some did not take you seriously, and didn’t expect the project to be successful. Now, after many years, MBC Group operates more than a dozen channels. What were the challenges at the beginning?
I personally didn’t even expect the success of the MBC Group. Take the example of someone walking in the dark. That was an unprecedented experience. All of the TV channels that were prevailing were government channels, and the system was completely different. So it was a completely new experience and the people who were in charge of this task in London came from the BBC, from Sky, and they were of great help to us. However we did not rely on them completely because the second phase of the launch – which was for me the most important – witnessed our move from London to Dubai.
What did Dubai offer you in comparison with London?
There’s no comparison. The decision to move from London to Dubai was a very important, decisive decision. And I would like to thank His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, because at that time I had ruled out completely the idea of moving to any Arab country.
However, Sheikh Mohammed was very convincing. We held long meetings and every time we used to sit with Sheikh Mohammed, he used to approve and accept all of our demands. There are of course many sensitive issues in the Arab world. And I was very reluctant. But Sheikh Mohammed opened the doors of Dubai for us. And he informed us about his vision for Dubai, not only at the real estate and construction level, but also in terms of the society, the composition of the community.
During our negotiations in 2001, we were supposed to have lunch at HH Sheikh Mohammed’s residence. He said ‘instead, I would like to invite you to an event that is taking place in Dubai’. It was a wedding for one of the tribes in the UAE. There was a huge tent; we went in and Sheikh Mohammed was sitting in the middle, and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed was on his right and I was sitting on the other side. Someone came and spoke to Sheikh Mohammed, who listened to him and said loud, ‘my brothers, this man is mediating for one of our sons, who is accused of harassing some girls and women in the souks in Dubai’. And he said ‘you’re all hearing now, and I do not accept to intervene in this. The law applies to everyone, even to our sons and citizens’. [I said after that] with this mentality, Dubai will of course be successful.
I read an article that said it was surprising that MBC chose to forgo the freedom of London for Dubai. And yet in 2003 we heard of the launch of Al Arabiya, one of the major competitors in the field of news. What happened there?
I would like to go back to the same point. I think this is due to the encouragement of Sheikh Mohammed. Between 2001 and 2003, that was a probation period for us with regard to Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed never himself, or anyone on his behalf, called us or sent a message saying ‘careful on this subject’ or ‘don’t tackle this issue’. Never, ever. I tackled many issues while here in Dubai. And I remember at the beginnings of Al Arabiya, I sent notice to Sheikh Mohammed telling him about it, saying there might be pressures from perhaps the Americans, because this coincided with the entrance of the Americans to Iraq. But Sheikh Mohammed said ‘excellent’. And I asked, ‘do you have any problem?’, and he said ‘no, I’ll inaugurate it’. And that’s what happened, he inaugurated Al Arabiya.
You have a major market in Saudi Arabia, and you are present here in Dubai. Does this affect your editing policy?
First of all, in Saudi Arabia the ceiling has gone higher due to the involvement of King Abdullah. King Abdullah announced to everybody that all people in charge of the government are required to be transparent, as well as to interact, to respond to the requirements of the media. Prince Salman [the Crown Prince] is following up the development of the media scene in a very precise manner. And he follows what is happening on the station. Sometimes he will call me and I would not be following myself and wouldn’t be able to answer his questions… They are encouraging responsible boldness.
Al Arabiya has a very well-known political position. So what is the nature of the relationship between your editing board and the journalists working for you?
I think that I am well known as a manager of a group, but I am also an investor in the media sector. I cannot pretend that I am a journalist. I learn from the people you mention. [My senior staff members] have all the competencies and they do not have to go back to me on any issue; I do not ask them to go back to me on anything. On the contrary, I use them as a reference.
You are responsible for the creation of all this media content, on MBC and Al Arabiya. But I wondered: Do you watch TV? What do you watch? Do you know what’s going to be on the screens or is it a surprise to you?
There are live programs … so I watch them just like other people. In regard to other programs, there are some that are close to my heart, the creative side. I work with people who work on drama programs, documentaries. So I am keener on this side of our programming and I really enjoy them. When they come to me about the budgets, I always tell them ‘go to Sam [Barnett, chief executive of MBC Group]’. But I tell them, come to me with regard to creative content, tell me what you are presenting people with. This is what I really enjoy.
Why did you enter the Egyptian market with a dedicated channel? And why did you get satirist Bassem Youssef on board?
We are not new to Egypt. As I told you, in 1991 the first country I went to and tried to operate in was Egypt, based on our need. Egypt was supplying the whole Arab world with programs etcetera. So since the very beginning we were present in Egypt, we had partnerships, including with the Egyptian government station. After what is known as the Arab Spring… there has been an intention to empty the Egyptian media of its skills.
Before 2011 we would not even dare to have a station competing with the Egyptian stations, because they were so strong. Unfortunately the Egyptian stations became weak, and here we found a gap. And we thought that we were capable of competing with the Egyptian stations. MBC Egypt today is in second position, and it is competing for first position. And I always say something that I learnt from Sheikh Mohammed: We do not recognize second position, we always aim for first position.
Bassem Youssef is one of the media persons I have been following recently. He is a professional in his area of expertise. We agreed with him that we would take his program as it is. We would not interfere with the details, such as who he would talk about etcetera. His decisions are made according to the situation. And we would not exaggerate what he does. At the end of the day it is a satirical program. Because of the situation, we heard many things about his program - Al-Bernameg – being politicized. And we see that things have been blown out of proportion. However our relationship with Bassem Yousef is limited to airing his program. I respect him as a media person and I appreciate his material, and I think that the Egyptian people are wise enough in their reception to it.
We are now at the doorsteps of the election in Egypt. What is your political position on this?
We stopped airing Al-Bernameg before the elections so that we do not impact the course of the elections in any way. With regard to the elections, we will support the decision of the Egyptian people. Today, we have two candidates – [Hamdeen] Sabahi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – and we think both are capable to run the country. Personally I think that what al-Sisi has done in the past was a heroic action, a courageous move on his part. And in case he becomes president of Egypt, I think that Egypt will have a better chance of stability.
Some have criticised data from Ipsos – which compiles TV ratings in the Middle East and other regions – and how it relates to MBC. What is your comment on that?
Evaluation of stations in Egypt and here is done by Ipsos, which is an international company. It is listed on the French stock market; it has auditors, and it is present in 80 countries. So, do you think that Ipsos would risk its reputation in all these countries in order to please Choueiri Group [which sells advertising on behalf of MBC] and to please us? This is ridiculous. It is illogical.
You produced historic series such as Omar and King Farouk. Do you have future plans for similar products?
Sure, this is something close to my heart. We inaugurated a studio and I’m not exaggerating here, but it is one of the most important studios in the region. And I’m not talking the Arab world – but up to Turkey and Iran. So technically it is the best, it can be compared to Hollywood etcetera. It is in Dubai; Sheikh Mohammed inaugurated the studio. Hopefully you will see the first production from this studio during the Ramadan period.
How did Dubai contribute to the production of this new series?
Anything you would ask for today under the sponsorship of Sheikh Mohammed is available. There are exceptional facilities. You have a strong infrastructure that would not be affected by any form of instability. We produce in Lebanon and Egypt etcetera, and should anything happen there, our production would be affected. In Dubai this does not happen at all. We had the events of 2008 etcetera and nothing affected our work. Everything ran smoothly and on time. We also have support from all sectors, whether governmental or private. And the advantage is, if you need any skills, you have people within 24 hours. In Egypt today, Syrians cannot enter. So we have to replace them with others. In Lebanon, certain nationalities cannot enter. In Dubai, we do not have this problem.
When will we hear about startups in the region? What about the Netflix, when will we hear about new applications that will make a difference?
Youth is a very important issue. It is something that is close to my heart. I believe in the capabilities of the Arab youth. Half of our Arab population is youthful: 60 percent is under 25 years. They have the capabilities and skills via social media and the internet. Youth today have avenues and they have access to new technologies and new cultures. They are open to the world. And they only need our care. We should, to the best of our abilities, give them support. Hopefully you will see that in the coming projects.
In regard to Saudi Arabia and filmmaking, I would like to tell you the following. In Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum launched the American University [of Dubai’s] media faculty, which is run by Ali Jaber… we would like to cooperate with them, to tell them about our needs, to tell them what are the specializations that we are lacking. I think that this will be a great service to our work. There are many things that are not done here because the skills are absent, and this used to cost us a lot of money. But we have Arab youth. They are capable of providing these skills. And I dearly hope that we will be able to look into specializations that are offered by universities so that we can give this opportunity to the youth so that they can specialize in different areas of media, so that they can be more creative.
In recent years we have seen a number of media outlets like Russia Today and Al Jazeera International providing services in English. Do you have such plans?
If you want to follow the example of X or Y, it should be a successful example. Do you think Al Jazeera English is a successful example? That is a question to ask. Today, we have statistics, we are professionals. There was a cable company in the U.S. [belonging to Al Gore] that was bought by the Qataris. After that the number of subscriptions dwindled. So if you want to compete with CNN and the BBC and other international stations, you need exceptional capabilities; you must be on par with them in terms of professionalism. You must be able to communicate with the West. I do not think we are capable today of going into such a field. And where is the revenue? Egyptians say, ‘if you have money and you don’t know what to do with it, buy some pigeons and let them fly’.
Do you think that this is a lesson for Al Jazeera?
No. I’m not saying that. Al Jazeera is one of our major competitors. We were obsessed with Al Jazeera. We are interested in Al Jazeera. But I can tell you, Al Arabiya today is number one. And this is not my own statistics, this is statistics by major companies. Even on social media, we have 27 million participants. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal says that Al Arabiya is the channel of the rulers and that [Al Jazeera] is the channel of the people... Do you have 27 million rulers? That is the question.
You talked about 27 million social-media followers. Are you ready for such a change in the media?
First of all, we have to invest in the youth. I think that the best asset, the most important asset is youth. Today, I am proud that we have 2,500 creative persons in our group. Each one of them has a role in everything you see today, in all of our achievements. So decisions are taken in small departments, and you see it on a larger scale at the top of the pyramid. Each person has their own importance.
We have to follow up with technological changes. There are things that are very important from outside our sector that affect us. We are used to people watching us via satellite. But today, there are new applications. And we need to reach people via these new applications. And there are also challenges in dealing with certain regimes.
And I think there is also the issue of expansion. Today, the idea of pan-Arabism is decreasing. We have today local channels, and here we see the idea of Egyptian TV. Maybe we will need MBC Algeria, MBC Morocco, MBC Iraq. Today you are competing with local channels; it is not about pan-Arab channels. This is what I think is another challenge, and it is different from the 1990s. So all these are changes, they are challenges. Hopefully, we will be able to tackle them. It is high time that we give the floor to the youth, so that they run things the way they see the future.
What about social media? You don’t have an account on Twitter …
I am a follower on Twitter – it’s impossible not to do that. I’m not there in person under my own name, but I’m there via the accounts of people in my group. But please correct me if I am wrong… I think we have 120 million participants in all as MBC Group. So I think that interaction with people is very important. And I do that via the accounts of [my staff]. But personally, no, I have to admit that [I do not message myself].
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