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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 08:31 GMT
Al-Jazeera competitor launches
Peter Feuilherade
BBC Monitoring

The pan-Arab satellite TV pioneer MBC is due to launch an all-news channel from Dubai to compete directly with Qatar-based al-Jazeera TV in the battle for Arab viewers.

MBC's director-general Ali al-Hadithi says the new channel, known as al-Arabiya, will offer what he calls a balanced alternative to al-Jazeera, which has ruffled feathers among many governments in the Middle East.

MBC has teamed up with Saudi, Kuwaiti and Lebanese investors to invest $300m in the new service, which will be available in Europe and the US as well as the Middle East.

The channel's owner, Shaykh Walid al-Ibrahim, is a brother-in-law of Saudi monarch King Fahd.

Challenging taboos

On the surface, there is no reason why the channel's links to the Saudi ruling family should restrict its editorial independence.

Al-Jazeera, despite being financed by the Qatari ruler, has regularly scooped the world with Osama Bin Laden videotapes, and shown its readiness to break long-held taboos in state-run broadcasting in the Middle East, by giving a platform to exiled dissidents, or interviewing Israeli officials.

In only six years, this has given it a lot of credibility in the Arab street. It will be a hard act to follow.

Brian Whitaker, Middle East editor of the London newspaper The Guardian, believes that even with the best intentions al-Arabiya's journalists could also feel constrained about reporting fearlessly on issues such as the succession, internal reform and the rise of separatist currents in the kingdom.

"As war draws nearer in the Middle East, viewers are likely to turn first to established and trusted channels such as al-Jazeera or the BBC.

"If al-Arabiya wants to capture audiences, it will have to prove itself by breaking new ground and delivering scoops of its own, otherwise it faces being perceived as worthy but boring," Mr Whitaker said.

Respect for audience and guests

Independent pan-Arab satellite TV began in 1991 with the launch of MBC, which broadcast from London before moving to Dubai in 2002.

Salah Nigm, a BBC veteran and chief editor of al-Jazeera until 2001, is head of MBC News.

He outlined al-Arabiya's offering: "News with quality production and editorial values, as well as a look on the screen and the provision of opinions that respect the reason and mentality and dignity of both the audience and our guests and provides a broad range of opinions, rather than going for the easy solution."

Salah Kallab, a former Jordanian information minister who will serve as al-Arabiya's director-general, added: "We are not going to make problems for Arab countries... We'll stick with the truth, but there's no sensationalism."

Competition 'welcomed'

Al-Jazeera TV launched in 1996 and has come to dominate satellite TV news in the Middle East.

It says it welcomes the competition from MBC "without fear".

Al-Jazeera's own plans for expansion include launching an English-language counterpart to its Arabic web site next month.

Next year, the channel hopes to start English-language TV broadcasts.

Apart from al-Jazeera, there are currently two other all-news free-to-air channels aimed at Arabic-speaking audiences: the London-based Arab News Network (ANN) and Khalifa News Channel, owned by Algerian businessman Rafik Khalifa.

Ali Jaber, executive director of Lebanon's Future TV, says: "All the stations are competing to be the one to watch in an Iraqi war."

Opening doors

With 35 million viewers, Qatar-backed al-Jazeera has the largest pan-Arab satellite TV audience figures among channels.

But its new Saudi-backed rival will be welcome to report from Arab countries where al-Jazeera is not.

In recent years, al-Jazeera has upset Jordan, Kuwait, Algeria and the Palestinian Authority, among others.

It is currently in bad standing in Saudi Arabia, which banned al-Jazeera crews from covering the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Ali al-Hadithi is convinced the market can absorb even more than two all-news Arab satellite channels.

He says: "People should have a choice, options, like elsewhere in the world. There shouldn't be a monopoly."

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.



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