Business Unusual: CNBC Arabiya on a Roll

By S. Abdallah Schleifer

Zafar Siddiqi welcomes Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia at CNBC Arabiya, Riyadh

Less than a year after launch (July 27, 2003), CNBC Arabiya is distinctly upbeat about its performance and its prospects. From the financial perspective, everything is going according to plan according to CEO and chairman of the board Zafar Siddiqi and editorially they are about to pull off a major journalistic coup - a fully staffed bureau with studio, satellite links, and permission to broadcast in Riyadh and a similar setup in Jeddah, on air by the end of May 2004. This will make them the first international news organization without local partners or owners to have an operation in Saudi Arabia.

"We are on target and on budget. Our original projection called for break even at the end of Year Three, which would mean July 2007. Sales of broadcasting time to advertisers are in line with forecasts. The important thing in any product offering, whatever the station or channel, is how the product is perceived and received by its potential audience, and I am very pleased to say that we are very well received right across the region as something new, a breath of fresh air," says Siddiqi.

That's just on the financial side. Editorially, CNBC Arabiya has clearly picked up speed since TBS visited their production and transmission center in Dubai Media City last fall. The channel is now producing nine-and-a-half hours a day of original programming, virtually all of which is rotated but with continuous updates on major news stories.

Siddiqi says the channel is making excellent progress in establishing itself across the region, not just in Saudi Arabia. The channel has been replacing stringers or individual staff correspondents with fully staffed bureaus. "We just opened a bureau in Bahrain, the Cairo bureau has been functioning for months; the Kuwait bureau opened early last April. We have been operational in Beirut since the beginning and we will be opening bureaus soon in Muscat and Qatar."

And the Maghrib? Siddiqi says they are taking a serious if cautious look at that region. Right now it's a toss up whether to open a bureau in Algeria or Morocco. But Siddiqi is also keeping an eye on Libya and he expects further down the line as Libya opens to foreign investment, it will become "a very interesting region" for CNBC Arabiya.

Besides Beirut and Cairo and Kuwait and very shortly Jeddah/Riyadh, London is a major news center. CNBC Arabiya has a bureau chief and a three-man news team generating one live broadcast a day. That makes sense considering the extraordinary number of major deals involving at least one side that's Arab which are made in London. There is also a very strong Arab presence among the stock brokers in London's City.

But there is no equivalent operation in New York. Siddiqi says he expects to have a New York office fully operational by the fall; it will concentrate on the stock market and US financial news. This is a somewhat surprising delay in editorial focus when one considers to what degree all of the other major markets are impacted by trading at the NYSE. Perhaps the partiality towards London is explained by the formative years that both Siddiqi (who is a British national) and his chief editor Dr.Walid Al Kurdi have spent in the UK.

Of Lebanese origin, Al Kurdi did his MA at the University of London's prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies and then took a PhD in economics at Durham University. Al Kurdi got his introduction to journalism with Al Hayat, one of the Arab world's leading newspapers, which is published in London and satellited for printing to all major Arab capitals. After Al Hayat, Al Kurdi went to work with the BBC Arabic World Service as economics editor, left to take on the challenge of being an economic reporter for MBC (which was then based in London), and after a brief interlude with the Arab Monetary Fund in Abu Dhabi, went back into the field, as a business news reporter for six months for Al Jazeera. But Al Kurdi nearly ended up as a British civil servant. He was serving as senior competition analyst at the Lord Chancellor's department when CNBC Arabiya recruited him.

Al Kurdi says that expansion is not just on the ground with more and more bureaus being added. Along with more reporters working for CNBC Arabiya in the Arab world, the channel will expand the number of hours of live broadcasting in order to reduce the amount of programming rotation.

Being an affiliate or franchise operation of CNBC brings other advantages as well as a great brand name. CNBC provides technical support. "We can bring anybody up on satellite from Berlin or Paris or New York or anywhere else where there is a CNBC studio and we have access to their material. We can use any of the packages produced by CNN. Just as we use their packages, at times they use ours," says Al Kurdi.

Despite the same brand name, CNBC Arabiya's programming is very different from what one would expect if you were to watch their sister channels in Europe and Asia.

Sami Zeidan, CNBC executive producer and presenter

Sami Zeidan who is CNBC Arabiya's morning segment executive producer and presenter is CNN-trained. Zeidan served as a news editor, writer and anchor in Atlanta for CNN International before he went over to CNBC Arabiya. Before CNN Zeidan anchored several public affairs shows at Nile TV in Cairo and rotated as special correspondent covering President Mubarak whenever he traveled outside of Egypt. Zeidan says the CNBC sister channels have a very heavy bias to market news but the stock markets in the Arab world are in no way as big or developed, so CNBC Arabiya had to develop a different approach.

"We are not a 24-hour market news channel. We take a broader definition of business news; our coverage is simply not so dominated by market news. We do have live Arab market shows, but we also cover dozens of other aspects of business news in the region," says Zeidan. He cites as one example a live show Jalsat A'mal ("Board Meeting") devoted to corporate news and avoiding away from the focus on shares in order to highlight product, consumer market plans, profits, and strengths.

"At night we have a broader economic show that looks at more macro issues - like looking at the economic aspects or fall out of the big political stories of the day. For instance the big story on the general news channels today is the taking of hostages in Iraq. But instead of pushing that story hour by hour as the other broadcasters do, we look for economic implications. We explore the implications of the hostage-taking for the oil industry, with foreign experts talking about pulling out, or for the whole economy that is to a large degree reliant on convoys coming in from Kuwait carrying supplies."

"Right now there are many convoys just sitting at the Kuwaiti border and not crossing over into Iraq because of the rash of hostage-taking. Our stories underscore the interaction between economics and politics, an interaction that is much greater than the typical viewer, or correspondent for that matter, realize. If you cannot get food and fuel into Baghdad, this will have tremendous political impact."

CEO Zafar Siddiqi acknowledges that if there is a major hard news story in the region CNBC Arabiya covers it and leads with it. In the case of Iraq, the channel relies on its Kuwait bureau for business news and on the Reuters Television news service for breaking political news as well as additional business coverage coming out of Baghdad.

But even in the realm of hard news, CNBC Arabiya's business focus can pay unexpected dividends (to use an appropriate metaphor.) The same day I was hanging around the CNBC Arabiya news room in Dubai Media City, Sami Zeidan was able to get through by phone to the then newly appointed Iraqi defense minister Ali Al-Alawi. It was a scoop. As former minister of trade, Al-Alawi was a familiar voice and face to Sami and his audience; he had interviewed Al-Alawi before. No doubt CNBC Arabiya's attention is welcomed by the new Iraqi ministers in the Interim Governing Council - after all, Iraq is keen to attract Arab investment and development assistance, and CNBC Arabiya with its focus on the economy is an obvious vehicle to carry that message. So CNBC Arabiya's insistent pursuit of economic news -both strictly defined and broadly interpreted to include coverage of health care, reopening of schools, news investments, new banking systems, and reform of public sector companies provides a more nuanced relationship with the broader story in Iraq.

And right there is the irony of it all. I remember before 9/11, Mohamed Jasim Ali, then managing director of Al Jazeera (he held that post until shortly after the fall of Baghdad) telling me that Al Jazeera was moving quickly to establish an Arabic-language business channel and was talking with both the Financial Times and CNBC Europe about partnering. But in the shock of 9/11 and the aftermath - the invasion of Afghanistan - Al Jazeera's attention was taken up by its exclusive but highly controversial Afghan War coverage, which put it on the global map, though at a price: CNBC's management had second thoughts about affiliating with such a controversial channel and the wheel of broadcasting fortune took a different turn. TBS

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo