COUNTRY PROFILES - From Egyptian soap-operas to the heavy censorship of Saudi Arabia, Middle Eastern media vary dramatically from nation to nation, Steve Shipside says
By STEVE SHIPSIDE, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 06 June 1997 12:00AM
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
United Arab Emirates is a collection of seven different emirates, of
which the best known are Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The oil-rich UAE boasted the highest per-capita income in the world
during the 80s. Oil remains the life blood of UAE’s economy although,
like Bahrain, it has also attracted foreign investments through a zero
income tax policy.
For most businesses in the UAE, a 51 per cent controlling stake has to
be held by a UAE citizen. However, in the free-trade zones (mainly
around the major ports of Dubai and Abu Dhabi), 100 per cent foreign
ownership is allowed. A formal regulated stock market, open to foreign
participation, will be activated this year. This will lead to the
marketing and advertising of floated companies.
UAE is one of the most relaxed of the Gulf states. In Dubai, for
example, women are not required to cover themselves, and can drive or
walk unaccompanied in public. Alcohol is not illegal and can be sold to
non-Muslims in bars and hotels, although you need to be an expatriate
with a permit to buy booze.
The Dubai Government owns an English TV station (Channel 33) and radio
station (FM 92). The healthy penetration of satellite dishes means that
BBC World Service, CNN, and Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV (broadcast from
Hong Kong) achieve moderately high viewing figures. There are also three
local Arabic channels and, as with the other Gulf states, around 100
miscellaneous satellite choices.
Dubai is tipped as the next financial tiger of the Middle East. ’It is
the region’s hub,’ explains TMI’s UK managing director, Imad Kublawi.
’The Dubai Government is visionary and intends to put it on the map. It
has published a 35-year economic plan and, by 2015, wants its entire
gross domestic product to be non-oil derived. Dubai is pitching for the
financial institutions of Hong Kong, and Bahrain and has taken over from
Singapore for exporting gold.
Most international agencies and clients such as Amex and Unilever are
there. It’s definitely the place to be.’
It’s an ill wind, as the saying goes, and even the collapse of Lebanon
in the 70s brought some good for Bahrain. The country strove to attract
the international banking community that fled Beirut and, in doing so,
established itself as an international centre for offshore banking
(though it faces stiff competition from the UAE). To encourage
investment, 100 per cent foreign ownership is allowed for onshore
companies, and there is no tax on corporate and personal income, which
goes some way to explaining Bahrain’s popularity as a Middle Eastern
headquarters for multinational companies.
Bahrain’s oil production is modest by Gulf standards, running at around
50,000 barrels a day (compared with two million from the UAE) which has
led to a diverse economy. As well as refining Saudi oil, Bahrain boasts
profitable aluminium smelting and shipbuilding industries, and acts as
an international air travel and telecommunications link. Bahrain’s Ras
Abu Jarjur Satellite Earth Station was the first multi-channel
intercontinental radio link between the Middle East and the rest of the
world. Bahrain has also signed up to the GSM mobile telephone
For all its similarities to the West, aspects of Bahrain are reminiscent
of its Saudi Arabian neighbour - democracy doesn’t get much of a look
in. The elected parliament was dissolved in the 70s and the opposition
driven into exile, leaving absolute power in the hands of Amir El
Khalifa and his clan. Not surprisingly, the two major daily newspapers,
Al Ayyam and Akhbar al Khalij, tend to laud the ruling family. Political
dissent is discouraged and the security services are guilty of
systematic torture, according to Amnesty International.
Part of the reason for this is that the El Khalifas are Sunni Muslims,
while the great majority of Bahranis are Shiite, so there is a latent
fear of Shiite activism. Occasional terrorist attacks are quickly
attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Iranian-trained Shiite Hizbullah
groups. In financial terms, however, the biggest threat to Bahrain comes
not from extremists, but from the growth of Dubai in the UAE.
In the past, Saudi Arabia’s economy was based on the pilgrimages made to
its sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, plus the date trade. The
discovery of oil changed this, and petroleum products now account for 90
per cent of Saudi’s income.
Fahd Ibn Abdelaziz al-Saoud (King Fahd) leads a country dominated by the
Wahabis who practise a more fundamental version of Islam than their
neighbours - beheading, severing hands and stoning to death are part of
the Saudi penal code. Women must be covered in public and alcohol is
forbidden, so ads containing booze and babes are out. But the pitfalls
for Western advertisers go further - it is forbidden to show women
driving, smoking or, in some cases, eating in mixed company.
As a result, many campaigns have two executions - one for the general
Arab market and one for the Saudi market, in which women are not seen to
mix with men unless it is clear they are married. Ads for more personal
products, such as TMI’s campaign for Braun, tread a fine line.
In Saudi, hair removal products are shown only in animated form.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, human skin may be shown.
Saudi Arabia is among the Reporters Sans Frontiere’s top 25 abusers of
press freedom. The country’s control over its media is fierce, even by
the conservative standards of the Middle East.
The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Information supervises all radio and
There is no criticism - or discussion - of government or military
Foreign publications that do not meet with official approval are either
banned, or their controversial images are removed or painted over.
Saudi TV has two channels, one in Arabic and one in English (with French
bulletins). However, others are emerging due to the demand for
direct-to-home satellite. Ironically, some of these are funded by Saudi
money, but based in Europe (ART is based in Cyprus, MBC in London) which
allows them to spice up the content ( strictly for export to other Arab
countries) without the inconvenience of having, say, belly dancers in
the Holy Land.
The satellite explosion poses problems as the Wahabis are offended by
some of the images beamed down from space. Saudi clients, it seems, have
long memories about which channels have offended them.
Saudi Arabia may have the oil and the holy cities, but Egypt is the
media Mecca of the Middle East. The Arabic language varies but Egyptian
Arabic is understood throughout the region, a fact that is testimony to
the power and popularity of Egyptian radio, cinema and TV.
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of banking and industry in 1961 has
been unravelled by his successors, Anwar Sadat and the current
president, Hosni Mubarak. Faced with an exploding population and a
foreign debt twice the size of the national budget, Egypt has relaxed
trade and investment restrictions, and encouraged privatisation. The
discovery of oil and gas in the Western desert is encouraging for
Under Mubarak, mass media continue to thrive. Egypt is home to some of
the most influential film, TV, music, and publishing industries of the
Arab world. As part of the ’Infitah’ (opening up), the press is now free
of official censors, although all periodicals are under government
supervision and a strict code of self-censorship rules out criticism of
the government or military forces.
The daily newspaper, Al Ahram, dominates the press with a circulation of
about one million. Others include Al Akhbar, Akhbar Al-Youm, Al Mesaa,
Al Wafd, Al Alam Al Youm and Asharq Alawsat, which is distributed
Broadcasting was developed by Nasser, who set up a network of
transmitters throughout the region. The five national channels remain in
state hands, although the proliferation of parabolic dishes means that
the country is increasingly open to international channels such as the
French CFI and Canal Plus Horizons, MBC and ART (a Europe-based Saudi
station), plus Orbit. This satellite presence encourages
The success of Egypt’s radio broadcasts in Arabic, English and French
has been overshadowed by the popularity of TV and cinema. Soap-operas
are the most popular programmes. Laced, which is reminiscent of Star
Trek with overtones of good citizenship, humanitarianism, and respect
for Egyptian culture, is well established. However, the existence of a
lucrative export market in the Gulf means that the Egyptian programming
is now developing a more professional, and global, manner.
Seventeen years of warfare takes its toll and Lebanon’s economy is still
struggling, although recent outbreaks of violence have been less
Continuing tension between Syria and Israel leaves Lebanon playing piggy
in the middle. Lebanon is occupied by 40,000 Syrian troops, while Israel
occupies 10 per cent of the country to the south to protect against
border attacks. But even without foreign intervention, Lebanon is a
Once a Christian majority, 55 per cent of its 3.2 million population is
now Muslim. Power is distributed between a Maronite Catholic President,
a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister, and a Shiite Muslim Parliament speaker.
In last year’s elections, the Parliament seats were split equally
between Christians and Muslims. Pope John Paul II recently visited
Lebanon to call for ’peace, reconciliation and forgiveness’.
Efforts are being made to resurrect the country as a banking centre and
free trade zone. Following the examples of Tunisia and Morocco, Lebanon
is negotiating for a Euro-Mediterranean Agreement with the European
Union to boost trade.
The religious, racial and linguistic mix has created a diverse media,
with Lebanese radio broadcasting in English and French, as well as
Arabic on local stations. There is no English-language daily newspaper,
although Time, Newsweek and the Economist are popular. There is also a
local English-language weekly, Monday Morning, and the French-language,
L’Orient le Jour.
At least ten different TV stations broadcast in Arabic, French and
Despite occasional hiccups, such as the bombing of Middle East TV (a
Christian station) in the 80s, Lebanese TV has thrived and broadcasts
beyond its borders. At the end of last year, the fastest growing
channel, Future TV (launched in 1993), started Future International, a
satellite service for the entire Middle East, and an encoded premium
channel, Future Gold, which it hopes to extend across Europe. A study
conducted across the entire Middle Eastern region by the Pan Arabic
Research Centre, an affiliate of Gallup, revealed that the top three
viewing figures were achieved by locally produced programmes broadcast
by the Lebanese station, LBCsat.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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