Why did Saudi Arabia's purge set its eye on billionaire media tycoons?

Published: November 17, 2017
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Prince Alwaleed bin Talal
PHOTO: REUTERS

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal PHOTO: REUTERS

One of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent businessmen and a former finance minister were among dozens detained in a probe by a new anti-corruption body headed by the country’s young crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, also known as MbS.

The detained individuals included billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns investment firm Kingdom Holding, and fellow billionaire Saleh Kamel as well as Walid al-Ibrahim, the brother-in-law of former King Fahd. Saudi Arabia has come to dominate Arab media over the past three decades, and the media landscape stands to change greatly following the arrests of these three men, reads an analysis on Washington Post.

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The three Saudi billionaires above have an oversized influence in Saudi media and they were the founders of companies which have gone on to become the largest media conglomerates across not only Saudi Arabia, but the entire Arab world. These include the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), founded by Ibrahim in 1991 and funded by Kamel, and the Arab Radio and Television (ART) network founded by Kamel in 1994 in which Waleed ran the music channels.

The 1990s were a decade of immense change in Arab media, and the three men had a hand in most important transactions which took place in the industry.

Kamel portrayed himself as a pious man and launched a channel in 1998, called Iqraa, with moderate religious programming. Ibrahim provided Saudi Arabia with it’s answer to Qatar’s Al Jazeera in the form of the Al Arabiya channel which attempted to provide ‘liberal’ commentary on Saudi society.

Prince Al-Waleed first burst into the scene in the late 1980s, when he began building what was to become a global empire of banks, luxury hotels and media holdings. Over the next decade, the prince cultivated an image as a canny investor, proponent of Saudi modernisation and, eventually, staunch critic of Donald Trump. He is the grandson of two of the Arab world’s most high-profile historic figures: King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and Riad al-Solh, Lebanon’s first prime minister.

Prince Waleed’s net worth is $28 billion, significantly more than King Salman’s $17 billion, and speculation is rife that the latest crackdown may have been partly conducted to transfer his and other billionaires’ wealth to the crown prince. However, MbS may be targeting more than their wealth.

The crown prince’s brothers own a major Arab media conglomerate, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) which has been rapidly expanding and has even announced the launch of a financial news network in collaboration with Bloomberg. While MbS does not technically have a hand in the group, his influence over it is clear.

Historically, the royal family influenced the media via proxy and did not own outlets directly. MBC was first based in London before moving to Dubai, and ART was relocated to Amman after launching in Rome. Even Al Arabiya, which has come to be seen as a mouth-piece of Saudi rulers was based in Dubai.

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Since the ascent of MbS to the position of crown prince Al Arabiya’s employees have complained of his decision to wield direct editorial control. In September 2017, an investment fund linked to MbS announced an investment of $2.7 billion to invest in entertainment.

Ibrahim and Kamel were the undisputed leaders of Saudi entertainment, with their networks providing content which was usually politisised. Their shows triggered social debates and the Turkish serials their channels aired were harshly criticised by Saudi preachers, with one accusing Alwaleed and Ibrahim of “having declared war on God and his Prophet.”

Recent events have placed MbS in a position to concentrate Saudi media power in his hands. Looking at the reach of Saudi media across the Arab world, this will lead the young crown prince to have a powerful voice across the region.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Rex Minor
    Nov 17, 2017 - 11:57PM

    I havae always admired Prince AtWaleed and wish him Gods protection. May God bless him

    Rex MinorRecommend

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