MBC Group (Middle East Broadcasting Centre) signed an agreement with Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Farhan that will see MBC shift its headquarters to Riyadh as a hub for its 24-hour news channel Al Arabiya and its breaking news channel Al-Hadath.
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Abu Dhabi’s National newspaper said MBC CEO Marc Antoine d’Halluin told employees in a company circular: “While we always try to reinvent ourselves, anticipate key trends, identify the ‘Next Big Thing’ and never sleep on our laurels… it’s only logical for MBC Group to be an integral part of the amazing ‘New Saudi’.”
“MBC Group will become — in gradual stages, over the coming five years — a cornerstone in Riyadh’s new creative zone for art, media and entertainment,” d’Halluin said.
The “new Saudi” d’Halluin referred to includes the cultural shift the country is undergoing through the Vision 2030 reform programme, which is designed to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on its energy sector, diversify its economy and improve the quality of life for all Saudis.
Vision 2030-related initiatives include smart cities, resorts on the Red Sea coast and Riyadh’s Media City.
MBC Group has been described as the Middle East’s equivalent of AT&T’s WarnerMedia, home of CNN, or Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. MBC Group today boasts 18 satellite channels sending out news, films, music and variety programming.
Saudi Arabia introduced its first channel, MBC 1, in London in 1991 and in 2002 moved to Dubai’s Media City.
During the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, MBC began 24-hour news channel Al Arabiya to report on the war and serve as a counter-narrative to Qatar’s Al Jazeera. It eventually gained a larger audience than the Doha-based network.
MBC is considered close to decision-makers in Riyadh. When Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iraq began several years ago, MBC established MBC Iraq, a variety channel specifically for the Iraqi market.
As a result of Turkey’s frosty relations with Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the MBC Group pulled all Turkish-produced soap operas from its airwaves in March 2018, neutralising part of Ankara’s soft power.
The announcement of the Media City in Riyadh led to speculation that it would be in competition with Dubai’s highly successful Media City, the region’s leading media hub. Associated Press correspondent Abdullah al-Shehri said the issue is not black and white, however.
“It is not necessarily competition but more of a complementary relationship or a form of synergy,” Shehri said, adding that some networks will remain in the United Arab Emirates. That includes Sky News Arabia, a joint venture between UK-based Sky and the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corporation.
Shehri, who has been reporting on Saudi Arabia since 1978, said Riyadh’s Media City will change the media landscape in the kingdom.
“It’s not just about office space. With MBC relocating to Saudi Arabia, the journalistic freedom that has become part of their culture will also be transported here,” he said. “It is my understanding that this project comes with a larger threshold in terms of journalistic freedom and it is in preparation for hosting non-Saudi media outlets and organisations.
“Initially you are going to see MBC and probably networks originating from Egypt and Lebanon and any media organ with Saudi capital,” Shehri added.
Media City will be in the Diplomatic Quarter of Riyadh, in an area of 60,000 sq. metres. The MBC Group declined to comment for this report.
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