Unusual: CNBC Arabiya on a Roll
By S. Abdallah
Siddiqi welcomes Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia at
CNBC Arabiya, Riyadh
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Zeidan, CNBC executive producer and presenter
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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