Appealing to the Hearts and Minds : How Arab Channels Fought for the Gulf War Audience

By Joe Khalil and Dareen Abu Ghaida

More than a decade has passed since the Second Gulf War (of 1991). Since then the Middle East has seen an emergence of TV channels, each battling for a piece of a highly political audience. The Third Gulf War (of 2003), was a story unraveling on the most popular media vehicle, TV. That is where most Arabs were getting their information. This was a not only a political war between countries, but a war between the Arab satellite TV channels as well.

Arab viewers were drawn to the event as it was displayed on television channels. Television channels helped foster a certain culture, an emergent pattern of shared beliefs, norms, and values, unique to both the individual and the community.

Of the many channels, this paper is concerned with the works of three in particular that covered the war for the Arab audience: newly launched Al-Arabiya from Dubai, Qatar-based pioneering Arab news channel Al Jazeera and the UAE's own re-formatted news channel, Abu Dhabi TV. In the process of presenting the events and facts of the war, these channels had some impact on the thinking and attitude of the Arab peoples. But how did these channels come to the position they hold today? What political or social factors influenced their corporate culture, which in turn affects their approach to covering the news?

Starting from within the organization and looking outwards, we will study which factors most affect the channels' output. These are all news channels and regardless of the quality of their news coverage, they have a common denominator-a news service. In their relationship to the audience/consumer, they provide a service or "product" that is in demand in times of war.

We will explain what corporate culture is, based on Edgar H. Schein's "model of organizational culture" and how the channels came to have their own corporate cultures. Then the correlation will be made between their belief systems and how they were able to translate those into reality-attracting the audience to watch their coverage-using the latest Gulf war as a backdrop.

From Schein's model we will address the 4 P's of marketing (Product, Price, Place, and Promotion), more commonly known as the marketing mix. These channels are the product available to the consumer/audience. So, on what basis did the channels market themselves differently to the public? What competitive advantages did one have over the others? Tying in Schein's theory on organization culture with marketing, we will focus on what he refers to as "artifacts," and specifically "promotion" as defined in the 4P's.

Most importantly, one must remember that the channels' products are a direct result of socio-cultural and political factors that they established from their conception, and to which they added others along the way.


"Culture is to the organization what character is to the individual" (Schein 1992:196)

In investigating the corporate culture of the three organizations and its affect on strategic processes, we are guided by Schein's concept of organizational culture.

According to Schein, culture manifests itself in three levels. At the top are the artifacts. Artifacts are everything that can be seen, heard, and felt. These include the day-to-day behavior, physical environment, and communication of an organization. The second level comprises what he refers to as "espoused values" which are the organization's officially expressed strategies, goals, and philosophies. Third are the basic assumptions, "the deepest level of culture." These are the "unconscious, taken-for granted beliefs, perceptions and feelings about the organization and its environment which act as the ultimate source of values and drivers of actions" (Schein 1992). Of the three levels, "artifacts" is the layer most commonly affected by outside sources and factors, i.e., stakeholders.

The Schein model addresses the issue of how the culture of an organization affects its strategic process. His proposal is that at the heart of an organization's culture lie an interrelated set of assumptions. Those assumptions have arisen out of a group learning process. This learning relates to two categories of problem solving-"external and internal." External problems are concerned with responding to the environment. Internal problems arise from managing the internal development of the organization. We can therefore say that culture plays an important role in determining how environmental developments are perceived by members of organizations, and secondly how members of the organization react to the strategies designed to respond to those environmental developments.

Many theorists (Schein 1992; Bolmen and Deal 1991; Turrow 1994) also attribute culture to the founder of an organization. The founders are entrusted with the task of shaping the cultural assumptions which in turn, determine how the environmental context is perceived. On the basis of such perspectives an organization develops a coherent strategic process for dealing with its environment.

In the light of Schein's model as well, each organization's mission should be examined. In doing so, one should focus on the political agenda of each of the channels. Al Jazeera claims to be "the only channel working without a political agenda" (Schleifer TBS 10). One can also say the same about all other channels. Yet a close scrutiny of the channel's mission statements and their output would clearly show the extent to which Arab channels put forward a political agenda. This is present on two levels at least: the channel's strategic decision (promotion, coverage, programming, etc.) and the journalistic practices on the ground. This paper is concerned with the channels' promotional activities as a window onto their organizational culture.


The recent exponential growth in broadcasting alternatives means that marketing has become a high priority. Organizations must learn how to market themselves with greater success, despite opposition from their competitors.

Theoretically, each of the Product, Price, Place, and Promotion variables can be controlled by organizations and at the same time. Taken together, they constitute the marketing mix. An organization must come up with a mix that will clearly differentiate its product from those of its competitors, while simultaneously considering the corporate goals.

Traditionally, the first element of the 4 Ps of marketing, Product, focuses on the individual goods and the product line. Here, we are classifying news as a product since, like tangible goods, it requires the elements of the marketing mix to reach the audience. The product is a constant variable and in our analysis is categorized as "the news on air." All three channels are presenting political news and are being evaluated against the war in Iraq.

The next of the 4 Ps of marketing is Price. The three satellite channels that we are focusing on are free-to-air. This plays a critical role in strengthening the other elements of the marketing mix. Since the customer is not evaluating them based on price, the channels must offer other competitive advantages. Most importantly, they must work out how to get the product to the customer. This is where the third element of the marketing mix, Place, comes in. It focuses on communicating with the customer and reaching the masses through distribution. However, these channels do not compete on place either. They're all free-to-air and reach millions of people regionally.

The most important factor of the marketing mix with regard to a TV channel, particularly an all-news channel, is promotion. This is what is referred to in Schein's concept of organizational culture as "artifacts"-everything that can be seen, heard and felt, such as the day-to-day behavior, physical environment, and communication of an organization. Thus, out of the 4 P's these channels competed exclusively in the area of Promotion. Channels can promote themselves by advertising, copywriting, media selection, selling (both personal and mass), sales promotion, and positioning. Promotion can be in-house, whether on their own channel during commercial breaks, or outside, i.e. by advertising. We will show throughout this paper the different promotion strategies used by the channels that we are evaluating and which proved to be the most successful.

It is important to note that a critical part of any good marketing strategy takes into consideration the product life cycle. However, as in the case of Place and Price, these channels do not have the disadvantages of a short life cycle. News is ongoing, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Channel Profiles

Al Jazeera:
Some analysts agree that "Al Jazeera" is a controversial channel, the first of its kind in the Arab world. Yet others argue that the channel falls under the supervision of Qatar's foreign ministry. It is subsidized by the Qatari government and its underwriters and advertisers are almost exclusively Qatari public companies. Internally, the channel is a multitude of allegiances and agendas. Originally, the main core of the channel's news team was the remnants of the BBC-trained Arabic television channel. Over the years, some moved to other channels while a group of previous government-channel employees, independent journalists, and newly trained Qatari journalists came to replace them.

The proclaimed policy of the channel is reflected in its motto "The Opinion and the Other Opinion." The channel's rise to fame came during the Afghan war. At that time, they were accused of being nothing but the "opinion of the Taliban." However the channel refused these accusations, claiming that they were simply the only news provider available under the Taliban regime.

Al-Arabiya had a legacy to live with since it was born under the umbrella of the first of the Arab satellite channels, Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). Its news structure was modeled after that of Britain's ITV, and its product came to reflect this structure and training. MBC's move from London to Dubai prompted expansion and synergy. The political climate for its owner Sheikh Walid Ibrahimi was ripe to attract various investors into forming Al-Arabiya. When announced, Al-Arabiya had as shareholders the Saudi, Kuwaiti, Jordanian, and Bahraini governments as well as the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Critics could not help but notice that the common denominator within this group was their desire to settle accounts with Al Jazeera. The latter was heavily critical of those regimes. Some critics went so far as to question the move of several key figures from Al Jazeera to Al-Arabiya (chief editor, anchors, and producers). To some, this move meant that Al-Arabiya was modeled after Al Jazeera, while to others it meant that Al Arabiya had the advantage of knowing Al Jazeera's practices and policies.

More than six months in preparation, Al-Arabiya postponed its launch date several times, finally settling on February 2003. While its staff was totally independent from that of MBC, Al-Arabiya shared news-gathering resources as they both pooled with the Middle East News Service, a company specialized in providing technical resources for both companies.

Abu Dhabi TV:
This is a promising local/pan-Arab channel with a general audience appeal. The channel is subsidized by the local government of Abu Dhabi and works under the direction of the UAE Ministry of Information. The channel has been constantly trying to find its niche with a demanding Arab audience. It has always positioned itself as a generalist channel providing a mix of news and entertainment. Its aggressive involvement with the war coverage came as a surprise to both professionals and competitors. Later on in this paper, we will examine how Abu Dhabi TV prepared for the war.

Political Factors

In the days prior to the start of the Iraqi war, adrenaline was running high in news rooms across the world. After all, it was the first war of the 21st century, a 24-hour real television type of a war. Its coverage potential could not be better, what with the possibility of carrying the two sides of the story-from within Baghdad and from outside. On the last day of the war for example, audiences were given a visual treat of the same scene from the Tigris River: one camera was showing the angle of the Iraqi minister of information reassuring that the Americans are still far away, while a reverse angle shot was showing Coalition forces across the river.

The media had no foe and only friends as both the Coalition and the Baathist regime vowed to encourage "balanced coverage." The Coalition established Centcom (central command headquarters) in Qatar, making army personnel and press conferences available to the media. It also created the "embedding" system that allowed journalists to travel or transmit live from the battle field in a relatively uncensored manner. In contrast to its behavior in previous war, the Iraqi Ministry of Information kept a large number of journalists in Baghdad and made sure to constantly orient them through press briefings and guided tours.

Based on Al Jazeera's previous experience of war in Afghanistan, they knew what their audience wanted. "What we want is what the audience wants-good coverage" (Schleifer TBS10), as Mohammad Jassim El Ali, Al Jazeera's CEO at the time, put it, and that is what they set out to give. On the other hand, Abu Dhabi knew six months ahead that something was going to happen and they had "to be capable of going 24 hours as news and public affairs channel on instant notice"" (Schleifer TBS10). Ironically, Al-Arabiya was launched a few weeks before the war began. Its six months of serious preparation and training could not provide it with enough practice for the task at hand, and, in the words of Fadi Ismail, MBC's head of Curent Affairs and Documentaries, it was "obligated to run before it could walk" (Schleifer TBS10).

Abu Dhabi TV and Al Jazeera were working safely within the boundaries of their respective governments, while Al-Arabiya was subject to a wider context, one that brought several investors to counterbalance what they considered as Al Jazeera's unbalanced views. In terms of the organizational culture, Al Jazeera had the news culture and experience while Al-Arabiya had excellent technical expertise but no previous experience of handling a large-scale news operation. Abu Dhabi TV was a new comer to the news business.

Marketing the Last P

Channels used various tactics and promotional strategies to attract the viewers and strengthen their brand image. The first three Ps of marketing are ruled out of our analysis since the channels did not have to compete on Price, Product or Place. Thus here we look in depth at the fourth P, Promotion, and how the channels differentiated themselves. Their strategies were a reflection of their own individual corporate cultures, or artifacts, as referred to by Schein, as well as by molding their product to fit what the viewers were looking for.

On-air promotion
On air promotion is considered the cheapest and most straightforward way to promote a channel. By exploiting the commercial breaks within a show to promote the channel, organizations can choose to promote either the channel as a whole or specific shows. In the case of a news channel, the focus tends to be on the channel's mission, position, its well-known presenters, and its achievements. An examination of the on-air promotion of the three channels reveals the following.

Al Jazeera's on-air promotions during the Gulf War seemed to repeat the same visuals used during the Palestinian intifada and the Taliban war. Best described as a series of fast-paced montage sequences with color enhancement, these promotions carefully juxtapose American might with Iraqi resilience and resistance. They focus on both players (Bush and Saddam) and victims (Iraqi women and children). The American army is portrayed as well armed, hi-tech units, in comparison to Iraq's primitive, undeveloped army. In brief, the on-air promotion was an extension of the on-air coverage that focused on the people, victimized or victorious.

If Abu Dhabi TV's staff was ready to shift to a 24-hour news center within few hours of the beginning of the war, their on-air promotion department was late in catching up. In the early days of the war, its on-air promotion looked more like TV propaganda, replaying sound bites from the UAE's information minister, the channel's overseer, as he summarized the government's stands on the war issue. In these, he invited Saddam to give up the fight and offered him a safe exile in the UAE. With the beginning of the war, the on-air promotion shifted to 'staff promotion,' which could be used for internal and external consumption. These promotions displayed reporters in full gear speaking against the Baghdad skyline cut together with shots of airplanes taking off and facing ground resistance. Thus, Abu Dhabi TV hoped to build enthusiasm within a well challenged team working long hours, and at the same time, win audience sympathy as a junior news channel. In the latter stage of the war, Abu Dhabi TV attempted to promote highlights of their coverage.

Al-Arabiya was too busy positioning itself as a new channel to spend much time promoting their coverage of the war. On-air promotion was used to deliver the channel's mission statement at a time when the audience was questioning the channel's war coverage. Their war-related promotions seemed at best a copy of Al Jazeera's, an approach indicating that they hoped to capitalize on a tried and tested formula. This seemed to do more damage then good. On one hand, the viewers were suspicious of this new channel appearing in a time of turmoil. On the other hand, on-air promotion reflected the channel's lack of orientation with the promotional copy failing to display whatever uniqueness the channel's coverage might have. Running two campaigns at a time may have been Al-Arabiya's failed attempt in winning the audience using on air promotion.

Despite the differences, all on-air promotions seem to have made deliberate decisions as to the choice of pictures, sounds, and copy to attract the viewers. The pictures highlighted American military might while at the same time focusing on the suffering of the Iraqi people. The sounds of war were present in every promotion whether conveyed via the choice of upbeat music, sound effects, or ear-catching sound bites.

Exclusive Footage
In the 1990 Iraq war, CNN taught the world of broadcasting a good lesson in the importance of having the right team at the right time and place to send the exclusive pictures. These pictures were certain to achieve a high level of audience channel fidelity while at the same time putting the channel's logo on other channels. This latter was one of the best promotions any channel could receive. CNN's example was replicated in the Taliban war with Al Jazeera being the only channel broadcasting pictures from the Taliban strongholds this time around. Many credit these exclusive pictures, along with Bin Ladin's exclusive videos, with putting Al Jazeera on the map of international broadcasters.

Several components go into generating exclusive pictures-a large team covering several territories from various angles, technical capacities allowing the capture and feeding of pictures in a timely manner. Baghdad was the center of attention of all media and viewers, and relaying information about what was happening within the city was the prime task of most broadcasters.

Al Jazeera had a strong advantage in this. Their team was professional, having survived the experience of the Afghan War. They were risk taking veterans from the Lebanese war and the Palestinian intifada, escorted by Iraqis. Instead of relying only on their team, Al Jazeera had deals to supply and receive footage from various international media. This gave their airwaves an added value allowing the viewer the receive footage gathered and broadcast by channels other than Al Jazeera. Yet, Al Jazeera's main source of exclusive footage was the Iraqi authorities, who supplied them with footage and access, most notably in the case of the video of the killing and capture of several American soldiers. This relationship proved valuable at times and a hindrance at others. At one point, Al Jazeera's team stopped operating in Iraq because it was accused by the Iraqi regime of being spies. In short, Al Jazeera was a victim of its own self-confidence, which sometimes hindered its eagerness for exclusive footage.

Despite the fact that Al-Arabiya was a new channel, its was sufficiently technically competent to allow the feeding of exclusive footage. Yet the channel suffered from two main problems-lack of good shooting locations and political control. Al-Arabiya's shooting locations were very disadvantageous for proper exclusive news gathering. In several instances when the action was taking place on the Baghdad skyline, Al-Arabiya viewers were subjected to their reporter's picture showing a garden at street level.

Al-Arabiya was subject to various political pressures which hindered its news gathering capabilities. Qatari authorities did not accredit their Centcom reporter, the Kuwaiti authorities did not allow two of its reporters to cross its borders into Iraq, and the Iraqi regime took one of its two fly-away satellite uplinks in Baghdad, leaving them with no back-up. Only in the last stages of the war, when the channel started hunting exclusive footage and was successful in gathering archival footage of Saddam Hussein and his family.

As part of its communication strategy, Abu Dhabi TV relocated veteran reporters to Baghdad. Located in a strategic area facing the ministry of information, it was best positioned to capture the flaming Baghdad skyline. Exclusive footage produced by ADTV was broadcast all over the world. Consequently, ADTV came to be monitored by other channels and viewers worldwide, successfully managing to get their "bug" (logo) repeated on competing channels.

Anchors/ Reporters
Just as important as exclusive pictures is an anchor or reporter able to translate those pictures into words. In times of war, the stars are the reporters in the field. The three channels understood the importance of having experienced reporters doing live injects for extended durations, and from dangerous spots.

Al Jazeera successfully turned to their star reporters-Tayseer Allouni and Diyar Al Omari. Famous for covering the Taliban war, Allouni is a controversial journalist who could not win the acceptance of the Iraqi regime. After spending a few days in Baghdad, he was asked to leave. This incident caused strife between the Iraqi regime and Al Jazeera management. Al Omari was not a stranger to Iraq, his home country, and his reporting was often poignant and cynical. As bureau chief, Al Omari was also in charge of managing and directing a number of other reporters.

Al-Arabiya depended on MBC's reporter Ali Noun, a veteran Lebanese war reporter. Al-Arabiya also attempted to compensate for their lack of Iraq expertise by picking up Peter Arnett, a veteran Iraq reporter. This American was the only foreigner allowed to broadcast from Baghdad in the Second Gulf War; he was behind CNN's legendary coverage. When Arnett was dropped by National Geographic for comments made to Iraqi Television about the war, Al-Arabiya picked him up and assigned him a translator for his live injects. Unfortunately, this move was not well received either in terms of television style-delay in translation and lack of immediacy-or editorially, since Arnett already had a committed stand.

Abu Dhabi TV was driven by a high sense of enthusiasm and courage. In this war for audiences they used every single weapon including pulling off the stunts of getting star anchors into Baghdad in the middle of the war. In addition to a line-up of Iraqi reporters, Abu Dhabi TV raised the performance of their team by having star anchors broadcast during the prime evening hours. By and large, this strategy maintained audience fidelity. Interestingly, Abu Dhabi TV canceled "Hayatuna" ("Our Life"), a show produced by news veteran Layla el Sheykhi and launched her into the nightly news mix, providing a much needed news authority figure. Similarly, Abu Dhabi TV tailored shows for their anchors, who became household figures.

Special programming
Traditionally, special events are an important part of any channel's news coverage. Some, like inaugurations or summits are scheduled and planned in advance. Others, like the outbreak of war or the death of a world figure, may pre-empt regular scheduled programming. News executives have the option to pre-empt programming with breaking stories but they must operate with considerable discretion. The decision to pre-empt a program takes into consideration the nature of the channel's programming policy, the importance of the event, and the editorial material available.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this war coverage was the transformation of Abu Dhabi TV into an all-news channel. This special programming was achieved on three distinctive levels. Firstly, a large team dispersed to cover the war, particularly hosting shows off the rooftop headquarters of Abu Dhabi TV in Baghdad. This hot set was ready for doing injects and hosting a show night after night, turning it into regular programming. A second level comprised the design of at least three distinctive news shows concentrated in the evening for prime time viewing. Each show had a special host, set, and mix of news and analysis. Abu Dhabi TV was the first to introduce a special three-dimensional set with a war map. This was coupled with the third level, that of the introduction of special channel commentators, both military and political. These were introduced in every show to provide insight on the military operation and the political activities that were taking place.

In the footsteps of Abu Dhabi TV, Al-Arabiya appeared more of a follower than an initiator of special programming. In the first weeks of the war, their coverage was more passive than active. Their newscasts had nothing special to offer except a review of the various hot news items. Gradually, they staffed the evening line-up with political and military commentators. The studio set and graphic beds came to reflect this special programming fare. Unlike Abu Dhabi TV, these programs were closer to developed newscasts as opposed to news programs. They lacked both depth and analysis but compensated for those by giving a more up-to-the-minute approach to the news aspect of the war coverage.

Similarly, Al Jazeera relied on its experienced team to maintain long hours of non-stop live broadcasting which included a mix of live injects, news wrap, and a plethora of political and military commentators. Interestingly, Al Jazeera did not develop new shows to accompany its coverage of the war; instead, they revamped one of their live call-in shows. "Manbar Al Jazeera" ("Al Jazeera Platform") was dedicated to covering the Palestinian intifada; the show then shifted into a platform for the expression of views about the war and intifada. It actually repositioned Al Jazeera as a channel for all Arab causes.

The case of the latest Iraq war called for special programming. So special that Abu Dhabi TV cancelled all its scheduled programs and changed to a news channel format while Al-Arabiya rushed to launch itself in order to gather up enough momentum for war coverage. On the other hand, Al Jazeera had the experience and was ready to allocate the resources and programming strategy necessary for good coverage.

Concluding Remarks

Several promotional techniques were used to attract the viewers to the news product. While it seemed that the channels were not competing on the levels of place and price, promotion was an area where the battle for the hearts and minds was fought.

Just as in any war, there are no absolute winners. Each channel tried to foster its own organizational culture. In doing so, they used their own promotional techniques. The success of each can only be measured by those who defined the promotional goals. Yet, some concluding remarks may be made.

Al Jazeera consolidated itself as a pan-Arab news source and used the war to gain audiences beyond the Arab geographic world. Yet Al Jazeera failed to present anything new in its effort to attract the viewers. Being a newcomer, Al-Arabiya had to live up to high expectations within the context of the launch of their service and the coverage of a war. While the launch drew the audience's curiosity, their promotion could not develop audience loyalty. Their promotional activity was split between promoting the new channel and promoting the war coverage. Abu Dhabi TV's most visible success was in positioning themselves as a news source when originally they were not, a success that owes much to their news room management and promotional effort. The synergy between the two reached its peak in the latter stages of the war when each newsroom success was celebrated on the airwaves.


This paper focused on the tactics used by the channels to win viewers. We have addressed these tactics while outlining the channels long-term strategies. Interesting conclusions can be drawn from understanding which channels viewers decided to watch and on what basis. One can add a fifth P to Schein's model-People. Statistical data about audience ratings is still unreliable, however, and we consequently ruled out any dependence on such data.

Another limitation was the reluctance of channel employees to speak about their operations. The ones who decided to speak did so anonymously.

Recommendations for Further Research

This paper was not concerned with evaluating the worth of the news product delivered by the channels. Consequently, further research might be dedicated to the value of the news product and to viewers' perception of the product.

Further research might compare the tools used by international channels to woo the hearts and minds of their viewers. Particularly it would be interesting to compare the promotional strategies used by Al Jazeera and Fox News, which are often described as similar when it comes to news product.

Given our overview of the channels' organizational culture, it would be a worthy endeavor to reveal the relationship between the political and financial constituents of the Arab channels and their news coverage, particularly in armed conflicts.TBS

Joe Khalil is an executive producer at CNBC Arabiya, and has more than ten years of professional television experience with MBC, MTV and Orbit. For seven years he was an instructor at the Lebanese American University where his teaching and research focused on transnational broadcasting, programming and production. His writings were presented at several conferences, and he consulted for various academic and professional organizations on issues pertaining to media in the Middle East. He is a graduate of the College of Communication at Ohio University where he presented a master's thesis on television in multicultural societies.

Dareen Abughaida is an Assistant Producer at CNBC Arabiya. She comes from a marketing background, having received a Bachelor of Commerce from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, as well as having tutored marketing communications courses. She later worked as a marketing manager at a DOT COM, focusing on corporate culture and communication. Her articles have been featured in industry marketing journals.

Opinions expressed in this article are the authors' and not those of CNBC Arabiya.


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(1994) Turrow, Joseph, Media Systems in Society: understanding industries, strategies, and power. Longman.

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Schleifer, Abdallah (b) "Interview with Mohamed Jasim Al Ali, Managing Director, Al Jazeera" in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 10, Spring/Summer 2003 (

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Schleifer, Abdallah (d) "Interview with Saleh Negm, Head of News, Al-Arabiya" in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 10, Spring/Summer 2003 (

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