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Al Arabiya to go Pan-Arab; 24/7 English news channel likely

Everyone's talking about a possible launch of a new 24-hour English news channel from Saudi Arabia after a recent reshuffle at the Al Arabiya editorial board.

Al Arabiya returns to being a regional voice of moderation Media leaks point to a new 24-hour English news channel Ad spending continues to be sluggish in the MENA region

Founder of the Saudi-based MBC Group Waleed Al Ibrahim reshuffles the editorial board of Al Arabiya and Al Hadath indicating the new direction

The Middle East is likely to get an all-English 24-hour news television channel from Saudi Arabia. The unnamed English news channel under the umbrella of MBC’s Al Arabiya will be the third TV channel of this kind from the region after Turkey’s TRT World and Qatar’s Al Jazeera International.

Owned by Saudi businessman Waleed Al Ibrahim, the Middle East Broadcasting Center is a private media conglomerate owned in a 60%-40% split between the Saudi government and Al Ibrahim respectively.

The MBC group has more than 10 satellite channels, which cover general entertainment, news, and sports. One of the most-watched Arabic news TV channels, Al Arabiya, is also part of the MBC group.

Speculations abound

Speculations are rife about the proposed launch of a new 24-hour English news channel from Saudi Arabia after a recent reshuffle at an editorial board. In a statement, Waleed Al-Ibrahim announced the establishment of an Editorial Board for Al Arabiya and Al Hadath News Channels, headed by Abdulrahman Alrashed and including members: Mazen Turki Al-Sudairi, Ali Hedeithy, Salman Al-Dossary, and Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas.

Al-Ibrahim also announced the appointment of veteran journalist Dr. Nabil Khatib as the new General Manager of Al Arabiya and Al Hadath. With the changes in the board, the media group is also looking to change its strategy and focus more on the Pan-Arab region. The strategic changes are expected to be rolled out in 2019.

An insider media source based in Riyadh, who wished not to be named, said: “The move resembles a return to the pan-Arab original direction of Al Arabiya, which was never meant as a local news channel but a regional voice of moderation and a platform for the highest possible standards in Arabic journalism.

“People are wrong to say that Nabeel Al-Khatib is the first non-Saudi to Head the channel, the reality is the first ever GM of Al Arabiya was the former Jordanian information minister Saleh Al Gallab.”

The source added that there are strong indications and even media leaks from websites such as Tasreebat that have suggested that Al Arabiya might be launching an English TV Channel under Dr. Al Khatib.

“This makes a lot of sense and is needed for the Kingdom, but I fear that it might be too late to do so now,” says the Riyadh-based source, adding: “The way the all-Saudi editorial board is formed represents a perfect recipe for success.

“Al-Rashed is the total quality supervisor and will secure a higher ceiling for the channel, Ali Hudaithi is the right-hand man of the Founder Waleed Al Ibrahim and will ensure MBC group provides all the logistical support needed, Faisal J. Abbas is the former editor of Al Arabiya’s English language website and will advise on restoring the brand image internationally, Al Dossari is a royal court advisor and an expert on Saudi affairs and finally Mazen Sudairi is a financial guru who is likely to keep the spending in check."

Ad spend on the decline

However, it remains to be seen how the new offering would be financially stable. Per media agency Zenith, the advertising spend continues to be sluggish in the Middle East and North Africa region.

In its latest Ad-spend forecast for 2018, Zenith researchers said: “We now estimate that ad-spend shrank by 40% between 2014 and 2017, more than our previous estimate of 33%. We forecast 11.5% decline in 2018, followed by 4.9% decline in 2019, before the market, stabilizes at 0.4% growth in 2020.”

Zenith also says that the global TV ad-spend market share of the total will shrink from 34% in 2017 to 31.2% in 2020.

Overall, Zenith predicts global ad expenditure will grow 4.5% in 2018, reaching US$581 billion by the end of the year. “This forecast is essentially the same as the one published in June 2018, with upgrades in some markets counterbalanced by downgrades in others. In dollar terms, our new forecast is US$1bn above our previous one, mainly because we have overhauled our estimates of ad-spend levels in the Middle East and North Africa.”

In another media outlook report put together by the global consulting firm PwC, digital and mobile media is set grow substantially in the Middle East. The report says that total Middle East and Africa entertainment and media spend will increase from $38.8 million in 2014 to $61.1 million in 2019.

“Saudi Arabia is expected to have the highest film market revenue growth at a CAGR of 18.5% from 2014-2019, driven by OTT/streaming,” says the PwC media outlook report.