Media and the Construction of Arabness
By Christa Salamandra
For more than twenty years-since
the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1976-London has served as the unparalleled
centre of Arabic-language media. This study, drawn from ethnographic fieldwork
conducted in London's Arab media institutions, challenges two contentions emerging
from recent academic literature on transnationalism and new media technologies.
Firstly, it contests the assumption that transnational or global cultural forms
engender a cosmopolitan disposition (Breckenridge et. al. 2000; Lamont 2000; Pecoud
2000; Vertovec 2000; Zachary 2000). A way of thinking, being, and understanding
beyond the confines of a single society, cosmopolitanism reflects a global or
transnational attitude towards the world, a desire for and appreciation of cultural
diversity (Vertovec 2000:7; Hannerz 1990). Paradoxically, the case of London's
GCC sponsored pan-Arab media indicates that claims of growing cosmopolitanism
may be overstated and that local and or regional orientations often remain paramount.
Here transnational forms, structures and technologies are used to reinscribe and
reconstruct local identities, ways of thinking, and modes of social organisation.
The transnational character of Arab media-it's London base-results not in increasing
cosmopolitanism, but rather in the development of new notions of Arabism (Hudson
2001; Anderson 1999) and new arenas for local disputes and rivalries.
Secondly, it qualifies
some of the more ambitious claims for the democratising potential of new media
technologies to transform social and political organisation and identification
and to widen participation and debate (Hudson 2001; Anderson 1999; Eickelman and
Anderson 1999). This ethnography suggests that satellite television has worked
to strengthen rather than undermine existing regimes as new televisual media have
been harnessed by Gulf ruling elites to support and enhance non-democratic power
structures in the Gulf Cooperation Council States.
Global London plays a
central role in the construction of Arab localisms. These new localisms are themselves
a product of prolonged contact with the metropolis, as London-based intermediaries
channel and control global flows of news and information to Arabs in the Middle
East and beyond. This elite core of expatriate Arab journalists and their wealthy
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state and private financers have harnessed-even
pioneered-new global information technologies for a decidedly local purpose. (1)
London is pan-Arab media's production centre. While many of its products are available
in Britain through satellite technology, the Middle East itself is their major
Work analysing the product
and consumption of new media technologies in the Middle East is just beginning
to emerge. Extant sources are largely speculative, predicting the democratising
influence they believe the internet and satellite TV will have on Arab polity
and society (Hudson 2001; Anderson 1999; Eickelman and Anderson 1999; Alterman
1999, 1998a xii; Forrester 1998). In an argument extending Benedict Anderson (and
reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan), new pan-Arab and pan-Islamic imagined communities
are said to be emerging through internet usage and satellite TV watching, although
ethnographic evidence supporting such claims is scant (Hudson 2001; Alterman 1999,
1998a; Eickelman and Anderson 1999). Little work on new media consumption has
appeared. Yet it must be remembered that the more ambitious predictions for the
revolutionary potential of terrestrial television have proved groundless. (2)
Indeed, given that much of the academic material is available-sometimes exclusively-on-line,
it appears that new technologies have revolutionised the production and consumption
of academic work more than it has Arab politics or society.
Media industry informants
in London remain sceptical about the more optimistic claims for the new media's
potential to provoke change. Al-Hayat journalist Salim Nassar, for instance, argues
"globalisation might force a change in the style of government, but it is change
within the system, not against governments" (interview 24 March 2000). Likewise,
Asharq al Awsat's Senior Managing Affairs Editor Eyad Abu Chakra sees new media
as a "safety valve" which will produce no significant change. Satellite television
remains largely in the control of GCC state or elite private sponsors despite
its cutting edge, transnational, metropolitan production. The following case studies
of London-based Arab media institutions point to satellite television as a vehicle
for continuity rather than change.
Middle East Broadcasting
As corporate legend has
it, Sheikh Walid, son-in-law of King Fahd, was sitting with a group of friends
on a trip to the United States, lamenting the unavailability of Saudi football
abroad. (3) Thus the idea of an Arab satellite channel was born. MBC was launched
in September 1990, as a commercial venture funded by the Sheikh. The first Arab
satellite TV station, its explicit aim, according to Iranian-born Managing Editor
Alla Salehian, was to promote Arabs and Arabic, and Saudi Arabia in particular
(interview 1 July 1999). Yet it also sees itself as Pan-Arab. MBC coverage extends
from Scandinavia to North Africa, and from Ireland to Eastern Europe, including
the entire Middle East and India.
A privately owned station,
MBC aims to promote aspects of Arabic Culture [sic] and to encourage exchanges
of interest and goodwill throughout the Arab world, thereby creating a greater
understanding of the ambitions and achievements of all Arab peoples. At the same
time it is intended to keep the viewers informed of events and developments worldwide
(MBC PR Dept. booklet 1999).
London was chosen as the
station's headquarters because of its access to news sources. The station's first
priority is news, according to Salehian. Although it creates no revenue-and indeed
is itself expensive-news establishes credibility. Also, he points out, London
provided a skilled workforce, important in the early days, when Arab countries
lacked trained personnel. London is "internationally regarded as the broadcasting
capital of the world with unequalled facilities, talent and expertise in the field"
(MBC PR Dept booklet, 1999).
Salehian admits that heavy
censorship, controlled directly by the Sheikh himself, marked MBC's first few
years. Not a day went by without at least one phone call from the Sheikh's office.
Before the channel became encrypted, 'editorial controllers'-as the censors were
called-outnumbered editors. In the early years, the Saudis didn't trust MBC editors
to make appropriate decisions, but slowly trust was gained. Censors sometimes
"made mistakes," and the Saudis now realise that editorial decision-making is
"best left to the editors themselves, who had learned over the years what was
acceptable." Editors, it seems, have so internalised Saudi censorship principals
as to render formal censors superfluous. (4) By the time of mass redundancies
in 1998, all of MBC's editorial controllers had been let go. Direct influence
from Saudi Arabia has decreased: "now they feel confident in our programrs' ability
to predict what is acceptable. There have been no phone calls from Saudi Arabia
in a year."
MBC programs include news
and weather, current affairs (including live debate and phone-in shows), and sports.
The in-house Production Department also produces cultural, popular cultural, health,
and magazine-style programs. One program features viewer feedback and requests
(Public Relations Department 1999). MBC also holds periodic charity appeals with
the Sheikh often matching the proceeds raised.
No accurate estimates
of audience numbers exist. "We are a long way from reaching accurate and reliable
figures on viewership," noted Salehian. Estimates for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf
States are 55 million. Market research firm Paradigm constructed a viewer profile,
based on 120 viewers in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Asked to describe MBC as a
person, audiences depicted a family man in his late 30's, middle to upper middle
class with a large disposable income, an owner of a large home with an expensive
car, and-above all-a professional. MBC is regarded as serious and trustworthy,
and is classed as a "safe," family channel.
When asked about competition
from newer satellite channels, Salehian replied that "as the only commercial satellite
TV station to combine in-depth news coverage with entertainment and cultural programming,
MBC has no direct competitor." LBC is known primarily as a racy entertainment
channel (likened in the Paradigm survey to a 'loose woman'). Al Jazeera, with
its looser editorial controls, has been broadcasting some daring material, thus
attracting news viewers away from MBC.
MBC is now trying to draw
a younger, less conservative audience. Yet editorial controls remain in place.
According to former MBC employee Waleed al-Moajil:
MBC has one criterion:
not to offend the Saudis. MBC will go after stories as long as they don't offend
established GCC regimes. Also, anything to do with issues of human rights is a
no-go area. They don't want to raise the issue. Beyond this, there are the favourite
"whipping posts," such as Israel. If there is a Middle East slant, they go after
it, such as Algerians in France. Arab themes are central to production. Western
news must be big news (interview 28 July 1999).
of MBC is in keeping with the notion that new technologies are producing new localisms
and parochialisms rather than increasing cosmopolitanism:
MBC is a very unique
company. It is run like a small Middle Eastern country, even with Ritchie as its
head. Because there are so many Arabs working there, they fall into cliques. Lebanese
look after Lebanese, and everyone else resents them for it, for example. MBC is
inward-looking, insular, and parochial. I don't believe MBC is really working
within, as part of the British television industry. By virtue of the techniques
it employs, it has provided its own criteria. I wanted to learn more about modern
newsgathering techniques and how they are applied on a global level. I wasn't
getting that at MBC.
Informants note that MBC
programming has moved away from news and "serious issues" and towards politically
neutral entertainment, perhaps in response to competition from Al Jazeera. Documentaries
are infrequent, while MTV-style popular music shows and in-house Arab music concerts
are regular. Such televisual offerings, along with game shows such as the Arab
version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" are unlikely to challenge existing
political or social structures.
Al Jazeera channel's London
bureau shares a building just off Carnaby Street with several other stations-Sony
Entertainment and a South Asia channel among them. (5) The area exudes youthful
trendiness. When I met with Yosri Fouda-having scheduled a meeting with another
staff member-it took a few minutes before I realised I was talking to the Bureau
Chief, so unpretentious was his attitude and the general atmosphere of the place.
He describes Al Jazeera as "the premier Arab news channel in terms of programming"
and contrasts the station with MBC:
I don't know whether
you're familiar with Arab media. MBC was the first satellite channel, but when
you compare us to them, we are a bit different in terms of programming, and in
terms of philosophy. Probably the biggest difference is the amount of freedom
we have to tackle any issue, as long as it's being tackled in an objective, balanced
way. The main difference is that, first of all, we are only news and current affairs,
an information channel. We're not a variety channel like MBC. MBC is a variety
channel. It's like comparing the BBC World Service to ITV, or CNN to ITV. So that's
a big difference to start with, in terms of programming. Second is the space of
freedom to tackle controversial issues, how we deal with things (interview 2 August
Fouda holds that Al Jazeera
operates with a broader vision than other Arab media organisations:
Are you coming out
from a country with a more cosmopolitan attitude to dealing with things, or are
you still, even though you are technically covering the whole world, doing so
with a very local mentality? This is the difference-it's not only types of programs,
or even how you deal with the content. For instance, whenever there is, say, a
20-second sound bite with someone talking, we always ask where he's from, even
if he is Qatari. The Saudi's won't identify a Saudi. This is what I mean by mentality.
That kind of thing, this is what I mean. This is one major difference. I think
we have more of a cosmopolitan attitude, or at least a pan-Arab attitude.
Despite its renown, Al
Jazeera commissions little market research, and has little sense of viewer numbers
or profile. "I think this is one of the weakest points of Arab businesses in general,
including TV," admits Fouda:
They do not really
keep in close contact with the end user of whatever they are producing…We have
direct contact with our viewers, because we are probably the biggest TV when it
comes to live shows, phone-in programs which put the viewer in direct contact.
We also get feedback through e-mail. But I must say, we haven't done a proper
survey, to really know what it is that people like about us, and what it is that
we can improve.
As for al-Jazeera's employee-profile
breakdown, Fouda argues that although no deliberate policy of diversification
governs personnel decisions, the station boasts the most geographically varied
workforce in Arab television:
We never thought this
way. And this I can tell you because I worked for the BBC Arabic Service, and
I know a lot about MBC: the most diversified place among Arab media is Al Jazeera.
The only black newsreader is with Al Jazeera. And we did it on purpose. We said,
there must be someone good happens to be black. Not only nice-looking, pretty
females reading the news. The most important thing is journalistic ability. Plus,
they have to be presentable. But presentable…employees come from Morocco, Cairo,
Beirut, Baghdad, Sudan. They come from everywhere. That's one of the positive
points about Al Jazeera; it provides a lot of opportunity.
Al Jazeera has gained
a reputation for broaching controversial subjects. The station's British Production
manager Rachel Staal argues, "We have fewer limitations than the BBC. If there's
a story that's worth telling, we do it" (interview 2 August 1999). Many of the
hopes for new Arab media's democratising potential hinged on Al Jazeera's supposed
editorial freedom. Yet constraints appear far reaching: "Some things there's no
point in covering. We want things people in the Arab World will enjoy. We don't
just want to upset people." Staal gave the example of a proposed story on child
abuse in an Arab country, which was rejected, as viewers were deemed unready for
such material. "Criticising governments is one thing, culture is another. Poetry,
the Qur'an, culture generally is difficult territory." Paternal elitism holds
the station's progressive potential firmly in check.
Fouda has his own investigative
program, Sirri li-l-Ghayah (Top Secret), modelled on the BBC's Panorama. The fact
that this program is produced in London testifies to the city's reputation among
Arab journalists as a centre of access to information. Al Jazeera clearly takes
inspiration from the American CNN. One program in particular closely parallels
a CNN: "Suwar" consists of footage from around the world free from voiceover.
One episode featured scenes from demonstrations in Tehran against the violence
in Chechnya, the St. Patrick's Day parade on New York's Fifth Avenue-along with
the gay protest against it-, bullfighting in Madrid, a "Toys of the 21st Century"
exhibit in Tokyo, and polar bear cubs enjoying their new home at the Colorado
Zoo. Yet despite these glimpses of a wider world, Arab issues-and the issue of
Arabness-remain paramount. Fouda describes the station's criteria for newsworthiness:
You are not talking
to only a certain group, or a certain mentality or area, and you adopt a pan-Arab
mentality, this is the number one criterion that will help you decide whether
this news item someone in Mauritania would be interested to know about, someone
in Somalia or Iraq or Morocco, if it will have some effect on them, i.e. is it
too local? Or will other Arab people, whether in the Arab World or somewhere else,
anywhere in the world, be interested to know a little bit more. This is criterion
number one…. We'll try to see the value, let's say there was a fire in Malaysia
and five people were burned to death. So many considerations are going to be involved
here: was it an accident? The husband was going to make some tea, he's ignorant,
it's his first time in the kitchen, and it was all an accident. If this is the
case, then maybe not. But maybe it was racially motivated-a Muslim did it to a
Christian family, or it was politically motivated. Then the news item begins to
gain significance. Maybe someone who lives in Egypt would like to know a little
bit more about it, because we know that Malaysia's got so many Muslims living
there, and there are some troubles. There are so many factors involved here, I
can not really tell you what those factors are in each case because they differ
considerably, especially since your playground is the whole world.
While news bulletins are
international in character, feature programs-for which the station is most well
known-reveal a clear preference for Middle East-related topics. The channel's
two live call-in debate shows Akthar min Ra'y (More Than an Opinion) and al-Ittijah
al-Mucakis (The Opposite Viewpoint) reflect this priority. Stall pointed to the
widespread appeal of these programs: "We've had Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein phoning
Critics argue that Al
Jazeera stirs up controversy for its own sake. Al-Hayat's Salim Nassar holds that
the network was conceived to attack Saudi Arabia:
Sami Haddad [moderator
of Akthar min Ra'y] is always ringing me asking for suggestion for topics and
guests. He always says, 'We need something hot.' Those people working at Al Jazeera
have a grudge against Saudi Arabia, because they were with the BBC's Arabic TV,
which the Saudis had disbanded when they could not control the content. So there
were 30 BBC employees with no where to go. Qatar picked them up. Sami Haddad always
poses questions to put Saudi Arabia in a bad light. Qatar, in the meantime, escapes
criticism-it is a small country affected by Saudi policy, so it feels proud when
it is able to attack Saudi Arabia.
Sceptical of the new
communication technologies' potential to positively transform Arab politics and
society, Ashark al-Awsat's Eyad Abu Chakra deems the recent increase in access
to information ineffectual:
We are going through
the American syndrome in a way. There are two ways of preventing people from seeing
everything: in the former USSR there was too little, in the USA too much, and
much of it frivolous. By the end of the day, you develop a one-track mind….Now
Al Jazeera Channel is exploiting a very interesting thing-frustration with closed
societies, with conditions, regimes, and censorship. Sometimes the Arab press
overdoes it, then freedoms are revoked. Most of the regimes play this game: they
allow freedom, frustrations are vent, the press crosses a line, is irresponsible,
and then freedom is revoked. Al Jazeera is exploiting this like no other station.
We don't have the notion of responsibility and accountability.
One of the initial attractions
London held for Arab media organisations was a perception of editorial freedom.
But as Salim Nassar points out, "the strings are still there. We are not as free
as we thought we would be. The place is different, but the issues are the same"
(interview 23 March 2000). As Idris puts it, London Arab media's freedom is restricted
"because its hands and eyes are abroad but it lives in the 'Arab nation's womb'"
Large-scale Arab media
presence in London is dwindling, as technological infrastructures develop in the
Gulf. The repatriation of offshore Arab media organisations Alterman predicted
appears to be effecting London, as the city's high taxes and cost of living render
media operations increasingly impractical (1998a.:66). The first instance was
the return of Lebanese newspaper al-Hayat to Beirut in late 2000. The latest evidence
of the Saudis' shrinking involvement in London is MBC's move to Dubai's new 'Media
Free Zone' in 2001. An MBC management source admitted that the move makes good
financial sense as, in addition to savings on salaries and taxes, the company
would be able to do away with its retinue of highly qualified-and well-paid-accountants,
who deal with Britain's stringent regulations. It forms part of the company's
efforts to commercialise, to become a profit-making venture. MBC's move fits in
with a general pattern of shrinking Saudi involvement in London. As to why the
Saudis no longer want to invest in a London presence, an MBC source argues that
they may no longer perceive a need:
The Saudis were the
first to set up a satellite TV station in London, to bring Arabs Western news
through Arab eyes. The Qataris have always competed with the Saudis, and are now
trying to fill that role. The Saudis are no longer concerned with being the Arab
World's presence in London. I think the emphasis may shift from culture to politics
and economics, and become more low-key. After all, what have they gained from
the station in a PR sense? They may just beef up their political and economic
ties. The Saudis don't need to prove anything-they are an important country-but
the Qataris need the publicity. Al Jazeera put Qatar on the map.
Consuming There, Producing
Here The ethnographic material presented in this paper supports the notion that
an increasingly global Arab media is producing new forms of localism rather than
increased cosmopolitanism. Arab media may be produced in London, but it is focused
primarily on, and read and viewed largely in, the Middle East itself. If London
is, as Asharq Al Awsat's Abdul Rahman al-Rashed puts it, Arab media's "kitchen,"
then the Middle East itself is its dining room. The term "incoming press" ("al-wafida")
referring to London's Arabic print media illustrates this unidirectional flow
(Idris 1999:67). The relative importance of London as a production site is shrinking,
as global technologies make possible-and London costs render expedient-media organisations'
transfer to the Middle East itself. This represents a partial reversal of the
globalisation process that has occurred during the last quarter century. In this
sense, the locally based orientation and consumption of Arab media is now, increasingly,
paralleled in production.
London's Arab media institutions
help to reconstruct local identities, but they do not appear to engender wider
or more participatory forms of social and political organisation. Much of pan-Arab
satellite television remains under the control of Gulf patrons and expatriate
Arab mediators, and reflects the interests of sponsoring states and state-controlled
markets rather than those of an expanding public sphere in the Arab world. London,
long the refuge of opposition and dissent, has also been home to organisations
that support existing power structures in the Arab World. Transnational media
technologies may eventually give rise to democratization and liberalization. Yet
this ethnography of London's Arab press and television points to the conservative
potential of new Arab media. (6)
Note: The author would
like to thank Paul Dresch, James Piscatori, Nadim Shehadi and Madawi al-Rasheed
for advice and suggestions on both the research and the writing of this article.
is visiting professor of sociology at the Social Science and Education Division
of the Lebanese American University, Beirut.