Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Murdochtana": an Arab media revolution

Saudi officials or “para-officials” started to pay serious attention to the Arab media industry as soon as the end of the 1970’s. Various panarab newspapers like Al-Hayat or Al-Sharq al-awsat were bought and (re)launched using the very first digital technology at that time. A bit later, the state took a majority control of the shares in the Arabsat program.

Saudis have also be involved with the first satellite TVs: MBC as soon as 1991, then ART in 1993, Orbit un 1994. Last but not least, Al-Walid ibn Talal became a major player on the Arab media scene when he bought from shaykh Saleh Abdullah Kamel’s (owner of ART) his shares in the top Arab channel, the Lebanese LBCI, in 2003.

Thanks to his private holding, the Saudi prince has become now one if not the Arab media tycoon whose more valuable asset is probably Rotana, a globally integrated firm with a record label where most of the major Arab pop stars have signed, more than half a dozen of TV channels from disco to religious programs as on Al-Resalah TV channel, not forgetting various societies for advertising and the organisation of events, a chain of hype restaurants and pubs burgeoning in all the major Arab cities, etc.

Entertainment is Rotana’s job. Nonetheless, politics are not very far. Being a global company, Rotana has to work on an international scale, dealing thus with the very sensitive issue of normalisation with the Israeli state, one of the implications of the agreement signed in June 2008 between Sony and Rotana which became its regional representative. As a consequence of that, some “Israelis” Internet sites (run by Palestinians) are now tops charts in a country like Tunisia because they are targeted by young Arab internet surfers aiming to download Rotana’s products.

And it is just a beginning… Whatever is its future after the financial crisis, there is no discussion about a dramatic change in the managing of the company. After endless rumours about the departure of many stars for other societies, Rotana has decided to down-size dramatically its offices in activities in Beirut for various reasons, including a serious clash between Pierre Daher, LBC’s General manager who has been preferred to Gabriel Murr, who, in turn, has obliged Rotana to pay cash the fact they had fired him!

After the many difficulties faced by Walid Ibn Talal who did not succeed in breaking the veto against a film industry in Saudi Arabia, finding a way out of the crisis, obviously is not an easy job for Rotana’s boss. This could explain the expected agreement with another global tycoon, Robert Murdoch.

A deal has been searched at least since spring 2008, when Rotana contracted with the 20th Fox Century for the broadcasting of the Fox Movies channel in the Arab world. Today, it is said that the negotiations between the two media giants could lead to the buying by News Corp of some 20% to 25% of Rotana shares (between 250 and 350 million US dollars).

Adding to the Saudi supremacy, such a deal - if confirmed - between the neocons tycoon and the “liberal” Saudi prince, owner of the major dream factory for today’s Arab youth, opens a new stage in the Arab media history.

As usual, here is the links to the two posts (1) and (2) previously published in French about Rotana.

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