- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — No matter what scoop is run these days on the Arab world’s newest and brashest satellite channel, someone seems to get angry.

Al Arabiya’s staff in Iraq has been threatened with death from pro-Saddam renegades and is being criticized by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council as well as the State Department.

The news channel’s “Inside Iraq,” with its in-your-face host Elie Nakouzi, ran two long programs showing footage of Saddam Hussein’s two sons cavorting with imported prostitutes at a private club, and in another program showed Saddam’s half-brother, Watban, then Iraq’s interior minister, supervising the routine beating and torture of petty criminals.

Not content with such footage, the program also locates eyewitnesses. It took a torture victim back to the scene, and in the program about Saddam’s sons and their women, it invited Uday Hussein’s teenage maid and a bodyguard to regale viewers with saucy and shocking details.

No wonder the owners of the hotel where the studios are based has asked Al Arabiya to move out, fearing attacks with bombs or rocket-propelled grenades by Saddam loyalists or Islamic fanatics.

But the station has also angered Washington and the Iraqi Governing Council.

When masked gunmen appeared on Al Arabiya a few weeks ago and threatened to kill Americans and members of the recently formed governing council, the State Department criticized the broadcaster as “highly irresponsible” and said it would send envoys to complain to the owners and investors.

In response, Al Arabiya’s board of advisers decided to stop such screenings, saying that threats of violence would not be carried and that only men prepared to identify themselves could criticize the United States on its broadcasts.

That decision was apparently not known to the Iraqi Governing Council last week when it banned Al Arabiya and rival Al Jazeera from entering any Iraqi government building or observing any of its meetings for two weeks.

Hours earlier, reports had circulated that the council planned to expel both broadcasters from Iraq, a move that was avoided by the threat of a veto by L. Paul Bremer, U.S. administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

“Had we been expelled, we were already prepared with Plan B,” said Al Arabiya’s chief editor, Salah Najm. “Coverage would have continued.”

Al Arabiya’s real battle, though, is a war of the Arab airwaves, in which the newcomer has fared remarkably well against its longer-established rival.

Al Arabiya has outmaneuvered Al Jazeera by airing exclusive interviews with Saddam’s daughters and with his ousted information minister, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahaf — though in the latter case Al Arabiya was upstaged by another rival, Abu Dhabi Television. The latter secured the same “exclusive” on the same day, but aired it first and gave the pictures to TV and newspapers worldwide.

Al Arabiya has become the favored drop zone for audiotapes purported to be from Saddam. They are left under a tree near the Arabiya Hotel more often than sent to Al Jazeera, Saddam’s favored prewar outlet.

Al Arabiya is the brainchild of Walid al-Ibrahim, a 43-year-old Saudi. Though the station’s output at times seems inflammatory, Mr. al-Ibrahim sees the channel playing a key role in changing the Arab world — toward democracy and freedom and against what he sees as its current maladies: dictatorship, repression, and Islamic extremism.

“I want my networks to make a difference in the Arab world,” Mr. al-Ibrahim told The Washington Times in the first interview he has given since Al Arabiya began broadcasting in March.

“One major objective is to get rid of what I call the Taliban mentality.”

Mr. al-Ibrahim in many ways typifies a new generation of men in the Persian Gulf. He spent four years at an American university and speaks fluent English. Married, with an 19-month daughter, he often wears jeans in his home country but dons the traditional headdress on formal occasions or when attending the Saudi royal court. (He is related to ailing King Fahd, but does not consider himself a member of the royal family, and his advisers think it best for him not to be referred to by the title “sheikh” — it leads to Western stereotyping, an adviser says.)

Mr. al-Ibrahim has been willing to put his ideas into practice. He set up Saudi Arabia’s first production company and in 1991 began operating the Arab world’s first satellite channel, London-based Middle East Broadcasting (MBC), hiring an Englishman and a few Arab journalists and producers.

“I needed somewhere outside the Arab world to give us some freedom,” Mr. al-Ibrahim said. Though MBC carried news, it focused more on entertainment. “It was impossible even to get satellite links from the Arab world, and we didn’t even have any independent radio.

“I wanted to produce authentic Arabic programming. In news especially, though there was censorship back home and everything was restricted,” he said.

MBC, while generally cautious, also made a splash with its news coverage, causing controversy when, during the Madrid peace conference, it aired a live interview with Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s deputy foreign minister and later prime minister.

MBC’s work led years later to the appearance of rivals and the rise of Al Jazeera, which soon dominated as a 24-hour Arabic-language news channel.

Mr. al-Ibrahim responded by creating Al Arabiya, which operates from ultramodern studios and offices in Dubai, the most forward-looking of the Gulf emirates.

Its nerve center is a circular, open-plan newsroom where banks of television screens show all the rival channels, as well as Western sources including CNN and Fox. It is run by Mr. Najm, a defector from Al Jazeera formerly with the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Arabic Service.

Mr. Najm said he stayed in the studios day and night during the U.S.-led war against Iraq this year, coaxing superhuman efforts from his new and enthusiastic staff. He’s still working to expand the network.

Elsewhere, his documentarians and current-affairs colleagues make fly-on-the-wall documentaries and review the Western media on a weekly basis, and screen freewheeling discussion and phone-in programs.

It has been a dramatic but at times rocky ride since March.

“At first, we paid too much attention to what Iraq and [Mr. al-Sahaf] were saying, and people were not getting enough of the other side,” Mr. al-Ibrahim said. “We called the coalition side ‘invaders,’ but soon we changed this.”

Mistakes and slanted coverage are to be expected, he said, especially from a new station.

He said Al Arabiya has had a tough six months but has emerged stronger for it, managing to present a professional front and win several battles with rival stations.

“We have shown much about the regime’s brutality, and we have not ignored the coalition side or the Iraqi Governing Council,” Mr. al-Ibrahim said.

He said giving more coverage to the version of events coming from Saddam’s forces was in large part from a failure by the U.S. coalition to respond promptly when asked to appear on Al Arabiya’s programs.

“We would have more coverage from the Western side if they would give us greater access. We’re often palmed off by secretaries. We don’t get the right people when we want them,” he said.

Nevertheless, Al Arabiya and other Arab channels have managed to interview Mr. Bremer and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

The task of changing Iraq from a Ba’athist one-party state to a democracy is one that Mr. al-Ibrahim said he supports. “It was necessary to change the Iraqi regime, though I don’t think we needed a war to do that.

“I think if the coalition’s intentions are right, I definitely think this should help in developing the region and the Arab world.

Noting the improvements in Germany, Japan and occupied France after World War II and the American occupation, he said the aftermath in Iraq “could be a big thing for the Iraqis and for people all over the Middle East.”

“I would like to see Iraq as the center of freedom and democracy, and to allow the flow of open information, and an open economy — that would be an example for the region,” Mr. al-Ibrahim said.

“You needed a model to show the rest of the Middle East that democracy can work. So if things go well in Iraq, I foresee people all over the Middle East clamoring for change.”

But he also offered a warning for the U.S.-led coalition and its Iraqi successors:

“You shouldn’t ignore a system that has been there for hundreds of years. Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic empire. You cannot ignore that, and think you’re dealing with tribesmen, and start from the beginning.

“With all the things Saddam did, there was at least a system.”

Mr. Ibrahim said the coalition erred in disbanding the army but is pleased that Mr. Bremer appears willing to reverse some of his earlier moves.

Being a Saudi, Mr. al-Ibrahim wants also to see change in his homeland. He denied that the kingdom has given support to Islamic extremists, pointing out that it is also threatened by fanatics, who recently killed 35 persons in an attack on a Riyadh housing compound for Westerners.

“The Saudi government did not realize what was going on, but now it’s trying very hard. We have been suffering just like Egypt and Algeria have suffered.

“How can a regime be accused of helping a group if that same group is killing the regime’s own people?”

But Mr. Ibrahim acknowledged that change must come internally in Saudi Arabia.

“We must work on educating our people. I’m amazed sometimes that even intellectuals believe the events of September 11 were some conspiracy by [the Israeli secret service] Mossad or who knows who.

“You realize we have got a problem. We need to go into mosques, we need to do more.”

One thing he is already doing is operating a music, news and entertainment radio station inside Saudi Arabia, to counteract the “Taliban mentality” that troubles him. He demands more freedom of speech and seeks more democracy in his own country, and hopes he can spread his message all around the region.

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