In 2017, Saudi Arabia and three other countries launched an illegal blockade on Qatar and demanded it shut down state-owned media network Al Jazeera.
A Saudi state-backed media organisation is considering the development of an international English-language news station, seen as an effort to counter Qatar’s flagship Al Jazeera network and boost the kingdom’s media influence.
The Saudi Research and Media Group reportedly approached media consultancies to assess the viability and scope of the endeavour, according to a number of people familiar with the project, the Financial Times reported.
They said it will be the second-largest English-language broadcaster in the Arab world, after Al Jazeera English, although the preparations are still in the early stages.
Al Jazeera Media Network owns Al Jazeera English, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia’s neighbour Qatar. The network and its English subsidiary has made a footprint across the world.
Given the kingdom’s intention to establish a channel that would help “spread the word of Saudi around the world,” one source predicted that funding for the Saudi endeavour would be “off the scale.”
However, another individual privy to the matter, stated the project would only move forward if it was determined to be commercially feasible.
Saudi Arabia has grown more self-assured as it attempts to compete with Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as the financial centre of the Gulf.
As one of oil-richest countries worldwide, Saudi Arabia is looking to boost and diversify its economy away from petrodollars, instead looking at potential investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in ‘gigaprojects’.
Since 2014, Saudi Research and Media Group (SRMG), which has ties to King Salman and was presided over by his sons, has been growing.
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a pan-Arab daily, and Asharq News, a television network that has a partnership with Bloomberg, are two of the 36 titles that the publicly traded corporation publishes. Along with running its Middle East editions, it collaborates with the British online publication The Independent.
Alarabiya and UAE-based Sky News Arabia from are rival Arabic television networks that are already owned by Saudi Arabia.
While news channels rarely turn a profit, media researcher Claire Enders said countries in the Gulf like Saudi Arabia are more eager on influence.
She claimed that the state was effectively following Qatar’s media playbook and had been observing it as it developed its media strategy, including its acquisition of sports rights.
“Al Jazeera helped normalise Qatar. Saudi has unlimited resources to invest in a similar media strategy to legitimise their position in the world and help them access people. A news channel is part of a wider multibillion-dollar media strategy,” Enders said, as quoted by reports.
In 2017, concerns over editorial freedom were highlighted by Saudi Arabia’s association with The Independent and the sale of 30% of the news organisation to Saudi investor Sultan Muhammed Abuljadayel at the time.
While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s day-to-day leader, has proven to be popular for his social reforms among the youth, such adjustments have been accompanied with a major crackdown on dissent. In 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by agents of the kingdom.
The US intelligence agency, the CIA, came to the conclusion that Prince Mohammed was in charge of the operation, though he has denied such allegations.
Meanwhile, International Media Investments of the UAE and RedBird Capital Partners of Jeff Zucker established a one billion dollars joint venture earlier this year to invest in media and sports.
2017 ultimatum to shut down Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera lead a prominent role in its heavy coverage of the 2011 Arab Spring protests that rocked the region. The channel cheered on the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, particularly in Egypt, a former blockading country.
Gulf nations and Egypt, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, have long accused the station of supporting dissent and giving Islamist movements a platform—charges the network has refuted.
In 2017, Al Jazeera became a key element in a major political crisis.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Doha in 2017 and launched an illegal air, land and sea blockade on Qatar.
Following an exchange of statements from diplomats in Gulf countries and beyond, the blockading countries, known as the ‘blockading quartet’ issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar.
The list of ultimatums included: shutting down state-owned media network Al Jazeera, downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran, financially compensating the four blockading countries for the alleged damage caused by Qatar’s policies, and ceasing all military corporations with Turkey – which sent at least 3,000 troops to Doha when the blockade was announced.
The shutting down of Al Jazeera was a demand regarded by the United Nations as an “unacceptable attack” on the right to freedoms of expression and opinion.
Speaking to the BBC, Jamal Al Shayyal, manager of content strategy at Al Jazeera and former senior correspondent, said at the time, “the fact that the claims are being levelled by countries who are directly involved either in the creation or funding of [extremist] organisations is beyond ironic.”
“Nobody has shown any evidence of any misdoing by our network that would amount to such a ridiculous accusation.”