Interview With Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, General Manager, Al Arabiya
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- Interview With Wissam Chahine, Creative Producer for Orbit TV Productions in Lebanon
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- Interview With Michael Pelletier, U.S. State Department
- Interview With Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, General Manager, Al Arabiya
Before joining Al Arabiya, Al-Rashed was the editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, and worked for a long time in Arab broadcasting. He lived for a time in London and was educated in the United States. When he joined the network as general manager in April 2004, he was considered by many as a pro-American choice and has also been an outspoken critic on Islamic fundamentalism. In this interview with FRONTLINE/World's Greg Barker, Al-Rashed addresses criticism that he is pushing a pro-American agenda and talks about Al Arabiya's role as the voice of moderation in the region's news wars. He also takes aim at his rival Al Jazeera for what he calls its selective and hypocritical coverage of the Mideast.
Greg Barker: So what is Al Arabiya?
Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed: It's one of the most important and influential TV stations in a very troubled region. It is a news station in an area where news is a very important product. So I think I can leave the rest for you to figure out, yes?
Why is news so important here?
Here we have so many conflicts. This region is torn by wars; it's being torn by conflicts, literally from the Far East, which is the last point in the Gulf waters, to the Atlantic Ocean. This massive area, with 20 countries in between, has so many conflicts. Some of them are as old as 70 years; some of them are only as old as one year. And people's lives are somehow decided by these events. It's different. Maybe politics and news in general in the West is something more part of entertainment. Here, it's a matter of life and death. And that's why news stations are extremely important and influential.
How do you keep that front and center in your mind here in Dubai. You don't feel particularly close to the conflict here?
Not really. We have correspondents almost everywhere.
I mean you personally.
Dubai is just a location. It's not really a place for events. This is the easiest place to set up a TV station, you see. This was important for Al Arabiya, which was established three years ago when Dubai was just starting to grow [as a media hub]. Now they have built a media city with so many TV stations in it. Every single TV station you see around us in this neighborhood is actually beaming to Arabs outside. It doesn't matter whether you are on a boat or you are on the Empire State Building in New York; the location really doesn't matter. It's a matter of technology connecting us with the viewers. But we exist with cameras and correspondents and transmitters and so forth everywhere.
You were in London for quite a while. That was always known as a real center of Arab media. How has it changed?
London remains another place for Arab media, but now it's not the media in London that is changing. It is the media in general that is changing. Television is taking over much more than other media. You still need London; you still need probably Beirut, Cairo and Amman to serve the region in general. And I think London would remain an important center for information for the Arabs.
How did you make the transition from print to working in television?
Obviously I was working the job, simple as that. After I left the newspaper, I was offered the job of managing Al Arabiya, which was then one year old. It's a challenging job, and I thought it was something that needed to be taken.
What was your personal motivation for getting involved?
A lot. Actually, as a matter of fact, it's a job with passion, something I really care about. I believe if one could change the region for the better, not the worst, media is an important tool, a way you really can make things change in the region in terms of opening up the minds, giving people a chance to express their opinions, bringing more facts and information to the screen. You are dealing with a large number -- 40, 50, 60 million viewers for a single TV station like Al Arabiya. This is massive. And if you can send the right messages, the right information, the right news, I think you can do a great job for the region. So television is more important than any other tool, in my opinion, if you have a passion for change.
What is the message?
I wouldn't use the word "message," even though I used it in my explanation. What I mean is that Al Arabiya is a media service. This service is to bring the right information; what I mean is the accuracy should be according to our standards professionally speaking. So if you deliver news in full, if you deliver news with the right information as it happens, and if you are fair in delivering the news as well for all the sides and all the parties, I think, with the right information, people will make up their mind with the right decisions.
Is there a struggle of ideas going on?
A big struggle. This is actually why this region is torn for a long time. It's mostly because of ideas. This is similar to Europe in the late 19th century and early 20th century. People talk about different ideas, and they will go and shoot and kill and show force because of their ideas. I think my job is not to struggle for the ideas as much as to struggle to give the people just the right information.
Do you think that can shape the ideas?
It will give people the chance to make up their mind accordingly, yes.
Was Al Arabiya started in some ways in response to Al Jazeera?
No, not really.
How did it come about?
Suddenly, we have kind of an eruption in the media business. Suddenly, camera prices have gone down from $500,000 to $20,000. Suddenly, you have satellites and satellite receivers at home, and you have a massive audience. And that meant stations were born -- for news, obviously, for general entertainment, for music, for schooling, for cooking, even for Bedouin poetry. So having more than one news station is something logical and expected in the market. It's a need really, not because I decide to compete with somebody else. Second, Al Arabiya is owned and driven by the MBC Group, which is the largest TV media organization in the region. And it was the first satellite television, launched in 1991, before anybody else. This first channel also carried news programs. It was very popular. But they delayed launching their own news station for one good reason. Commercially, it didn't make sense. There was no point in doing it and paying for it as a company. Over the past three years, I think the market is changing; the audience obviously is turning more to news stations, and we can measure the market much better now.
And how are you doing in the market?
Extremely well. We are three years old, not bad. We are taking the area by storm. We are winning a lot of markets. These are markets, remember, not just one single market. Different Arab countries. We are winning without bin Laden tapes, without bin Laden help, and this, in my opinion, is a phenomenon. I think it's a model; we need to show people that we can do a news station without being bad media.
What do you mean by bad media?
Rhetoric, demagogues in the street, and trying to appease parties against other parties. This is a news station. When something arises in the region, wars or violence or even peace, for example, we try very hard to bring everybody to the screen, and they talk to their own audience. We don't take sides. This is the challenge we have. It's not easy, but we are doing the maximum we can.
Do you see a danger in what some of your competitors are doing? You mentioned demagogues. Do extremist views have too much play elsewhere?
There are extreme views obviously. They have been around since long before television technology was born. We are talking about a hundred years of extremism, which is OK. Extremism exists in all societies. But this is on a large scale. The masses move toward certain ideologies -- for example, during the time of European fascism -- and no one is giving them a chance, saying, "Well, let's see if you have opinions, or let's see the full picture of the news." I'm not saying just Al Arabiya. That's not fair. But Al Arabiya and other TV stations are doing the same. They are really trying very hard in this tense atmosphere to say, "No, but this is the full picture, and you have more information for you to judge things." I think this is quite important in our business.
In the States, for instance, when you have a real national media, broadcast media, it could change the nature of society. You have more a sense of national public opinion. Do you think something like that could happen on a pan-Arab level?
It's happening right now, but I can't say we are changing the Arab world. This is an exaggeration. But we are definitely seeding for a change. And you can look at people talking. We are not just influencing the ordinary person in the street. We are influencing partitions , party members. We are influencing intellectuals. This is the way it goes. But it takes time before you see results on the ground. There are events that are out of everybody's control. I can't claim anyone can stop the war in Iraq or stop terrorism. But if you can persuade people to understand the opinions and the screams of the street, people are saying there's been enough violence or enough wars, or they want representation in their own governments. I have the tool for transporting the ideas from the people to the people, the ideas from one side to the other side. This is something new.
I assume you feel very strongly about this.
Where does that come from, personally?
I think I am one of the people, basically. I've seen it. I've seen victims everywhere in the region; I've seen politicians being hypocrites and changing nothing, and trying to go with the radicals rather than with the people. I just felt you can't really change the region based on voting that night, because you don't have voting, you know. So how are you going to change this? If you don't like the present, you can't change people in the street. And if you see violence taking place, all you can do is lock your door and just do nothing. So television is the only weapon against this widespread extremism, in my opinion.
Because it can do what? Shape public opinion ultimately?
Media did shape public opinion for a long time in the region, to the other side, to radicalism. Nasserism, which was an important ideology in the '60s, was all based upon radio technologies. It was radio that made Nasserism. It was President Nasser who made Nasserism.
Let me ask you about American public diplomacy in the region. I mean, Iraq and the U.S. policy must be a huge story for you. How do you play that?
So much is happening so fast, it's overwhelming, negatively speaking. We hardly have time to think about it. Events just keep changing day to day. But the thing we know for sure is that it was mismanaged from the beginning. Decisions were made; wrongs were committed, definitely; and here you are, stuck with a situation. It's not easy for anybody. If you leave the country, it's a problem. If you stay in the country, it's a problem. If you try to have democracy through voting, here you have a problem. Fundamentalists are taking over. If you ask the tribes to help you to find al Qaeda, the tribal leaders are a problem in themselves. So how do you solve it? It's reaching a point now of difficulties, of upheavals, of stagnation. There is no easy solution. We are among the few TV stations that operate from Baghdad and a few other cities with difficulties. We have brave correspondents on the ground. They go on television every single night and day. They report from there. Our offices have been targeted there.
We don't know exactly, but we know it's one of the terrorist groups. They claim that on the Internet. We don't really know who they are. We've lost 11 people so far -- probably the largest number killed from a single media organization.
Eleven of your staff killed in Iraq?
That's right, yes, and one has survived an assassination attempt. He was having lunch with his colleagues in a restaurant. Right now, he is handicapped. He still, of course, works with us. He's in Dubai. We give him some news bulletins on air. He's still a part of our team. He's a very strong character, thank God. I think it really requires more than just passion. It requires real bravery.
And, working in Iraq, you don't have one single enemy. There are so many enemies around, you don't know who's going to hit you. That's why we specifically were targeted by so many groups. We were targeted by Americans at one point. We were targeted by the Iraqi government; we were targeted by al Qaeda groups; we were targeted by Sunni radicals, and so on.
How do you respond when people say, "Oh, Al Arabiya is pro-American"?
Watch television. Watch Al Arabiya to see it. You know why they say that? It's simple. It's because when an event takes place, or an accident takes place, we ask Americans, to have their point of view on our screen, that's all. We give everybody, every party, a chance to go on television and speak, more fairly and squarely. I will give you an example. If we show one of these al Qaida tapes -- and we rarely do -- we show only the newsy part of it. We don't show the rhetoric part of it. These are important guidelines of the station.
Secondly, after we show it, we will bring, let's say, an Iraqi government official to respond or an American official to respond to it, because they both have their rights. The al Qaeda member will go on television saying what he said on the tape. Those who don't like this method accuse us of being pro-American. That's not true. As a matter of fact, a lot of people who are antagonists to the Americans go on Arabiya and voice their opinions, and this is normal.
You have been criticized by the Bush administration?
We were criticized by Rumsfeld; we are criticized by al-Maliki -- you know, al-Maliki, the prime minister of the Iraqi government. They closed down our offices for a month. We have colleagues killed by al Qaeda. We were targeted by Shiites as well. One of our correspondents, in his early 20s, was captured by the Americans and put in jail for some time. We protested that. They released him. Then the Iraqi government security took him, and they put him in their own jail. When they released him a month later, al Qaeda issued a warning against him, too. Basically, if you go on television and say something they don't like, these groups will go after you.
One of the criticisms against you is that you don't really cover Saudi Arabia particularly well because you receive funding from there.
Sure, it's not just funding. It's not the Saudi government only. As a matter of fact, we have difficulties with all the governments in the region. In Sudan, they closed down our office for a while, and you have to appease them to a certain point so they don't close down your office. If they close it completely, you will not be able to have news or views there. So, are you telling me I'm compromising? I am compromising, yes. But you have to understand the circumstances. And every single TV station in the region does this.
Compromise, one way or another?
This is a difficult environment. You have to be reasonable. You have to accommodate. We do probably the minimum compared to others.
And how about American public diplomacy? We interviewed Michael Pelletier, one of the State Department officers out here, and CENTCOM [the U.S. Central Command] has a couple of guys out here hanging around media city and going on TV a lot. What do you think of that new effort? Does it make a difference?
Personal relations, one-on-one kind of meetings, are extremely useful. It might not change the views, but at least it helps provide people with information. That's important. Americans are very much far away from the region; they are different from the Europeans. They come here as two groups. Either they are business people that come to do business and walk out, so they don't mingle, really, and talk and convince or change minds. And the second group, the politicians, they stick to the official line. And official lines are not good enough to convince anyone.
So who are you left with then?
Well, I think it's America's problem. I think they have to deal mostly on intellectual levels. Americans should be mingling more with people from other places. It's not just Arabs but other nationals. Geography is probably to blame, because distances are so far. You have 5 million North Africans living in France. I'm sure they can mingle and talk and express their views, or listen to other views.
American views are hardly listened to here or hardly even heard in the region. I'm not talking about official views. Official view is always there, but it has in my opinion little value.
But American official views aren't listened to?
They are here, but, no, they are not listened to. It has no value.
Do you think that, on a cultural level, America feels like there is not a lot that the Middle East can offer it, other than oil?
Well, I think people will expect that you come and help them for just nothing. It's expected that oil is an important factor. It's important for us as well as for everybody else, including Americans. But I think trying to be part of society is important: universities are important; media is important; definitely it will help you understand more. You can't really change our society through businessmen and politicians. They will never change anything, never.
You spent a lot of time in the West?
I traveled. I lived in London for a long time, yes.
Do you see a growing divide, or are you optimistic?
I like to be optimistic. I think people at the end of the day or at the end of some era will change. I think the region will change to the better, not to the worst. Why? Because East Europe changed. Europe itself changed. And Southeast Asia has come a long way -- look at Vietnam today. I think people eventually will come back to their senses, and I think the Middle East will be a stable region, but it needs a lot of help.
I was reading the news about giving almost $5 billion in donations to help Yemen to improve its infrastructure, education, agriculture, and so forth. That's brilliant, if it's well spent. I don't know. All those people come and jump to give money only when a war takes place. So Afghanistan giving money to the Afghanis was too late basically, or it's useless. You give money to the Lebanese after the war, when people have been killed and houses destroyed. In my opinion, it has little effect. But if you come to a country like Yemen, which is not in a war state, and give them help, you support institutions like education, or industry or trade, then I think you will change society positively. Also you can probably protect Yemen from falling into al Qaeda hands, which happened in Afghanistan because it was not protected.
These people we are seeing in the newsroom, your correspondents in the field, your producers, where did they come from? I mean, where did they get their training and how did you put together stuff like this?
This is interesting, because this television is a new field for us. Before, it was only old TV stations in the region owned by governments. They were doing their own job, but it was limited. Suddenly, you have this revolution of TV stations, satellite TV stations. We suddenly have about 200 TV satellite stations in the region, out of nothing, out of zero. And that means you need a lot of people to work in television -- writers, producers, directors, technicians, artists. And we don't have that in the market. So we worked on two things, obviously. One is we do it the old way, by stealing them. The second one is training them, which is what we do for the majority. We do a lot of training.
When you talk to people at the BBC or public service, they say, "Oh, well, we trained all these people who are out there now working on satellite television." Is this correct?
Well, we thank you, or we thank them. It's fine; we appreciate any help. But the BBC didn't train anyone in this building, to the best of my knowledge -- not a single one. We have a media community in this area, and I don't know of anyone that graduated from the BBC or was trained by the BBC.
Are there a lot of Lebanese working with you, because Lebanon is known as a vibrant media center?
I think it's quite amazing. The Lebanese obviously are very skilled people. They come from a very good media background. I have to say, their education system is still the best in the region; so some of them come with three languages. The Lebanese are the easiest to hire, given a chance to work, in the media business. And probably the largest segment of our employees are Lebanese, yes.
Is Lebanon still important in the region? Not just Lebanese politics per se, but where it fits within the broader changes in the region?
It's a drama. The Lebanese drama is definitely like a soap opera. It never ends. It will never end. It doesn't matter, positively or negatively, but it goes on and on. And, sad to say, it's good for television because in Lebanon you have freedom of speech to a point where all party leaders will keep, you know, fighting, verbally fighting, on television. So they create the ingredients that any TV person would like to see. Lebanese politics is very complicated compared to any other country in the region. We have different villages and different sects and different parties in a very small place. And it's very prosperous in terms of business, or businesses. But, again, it's a soft area sitting between Israel on one side and Syria on the other side. So the conflicts in the region are somehow reflected in the Lebanese scene. For media, obviously, Lebanon is important, yes.
And one of your competitors there is Al Manar?
We are competing in Lebanon with no less than 12 TV stations, not just Al Manar. We are more of a pan-Arab TV station, not local, so we cover major Lebanese issues. And second, we are not taking sides. Al Manar is Hezbollah's television. On Al Arabiya you can have all Lebanese talking, so it gives us a little edge in this matter, yes.
Let me ask you about Al Hurra [an Arabic-language TV channel sponsored by the U.S. Congress]. What do you think?
It's not really fair that I talk about Hurra or any other TV stations. I will talk about the concept, not the TV itself. It's good to have your own TV station. It's good to have your own radio station. iIt's good to have your newspapers and magazines, even if you are the U.S. government. So, in principle, I have no difficulties understanding the Al Hurra TV station. Again, it's a media game. It's a profession, but not just basically government orders. So in principle I agree with them. I think it's good to have anyone who's got an opinion, who wants to communicate with the people, that's fine. Television is the best way to do that.
Are they a serious competitor?
Not yet, not yet. Who knows? Maybe later. I'd rather leave it for others to speak about it, yes.
Talking of Lebanon, we might be filming with Giselle Khoury [a political journalist for Al Arabiya]. Tell us about her show.
She did a documentary -- partial-documentary, actually -- interviewing one of the Lebanese leaders who was imprisoned for 12 years. He was known to be also a warlord and Lebanese politician. This is the first time that he tells his story, with reconstruction. So we rebuilt the whole set under the ground to show the prison he was kept in for 12 years. He and his wife spoke to our colleague, Giselle, about what exactly happened during those years. So it's creating a lot of noise, and people obviously are seeing something completely unique, because of the way it's been done, the whole thing. We are criticized as well, to be honest. But I understand why some of the people don't like it. All we can say is that, at the end of the six episodes, we will have a one-hour debate about what he and his wife said, so they can respond to the criticism.
She does a political show as well?
She does a weekly show, which is very popular. She is a soft, smooth operator when she is interviewing people. But she is also very powerful.
Is her show just about Lebanon or about broader issues?
Broader issues. She interviewed a lot of leaders in the region. She was in Egypt, in Morocco, in Saudi; she has done her shows in seven or eight countries. But I would say she has put more effort into the Lebanese issues because it's quite important for us. It's been dramatic there in the past year and a half, and she has a personal interest, because she lost her husband during the last assassination wave.
Do you feel that, because it is so volatile in Lebanon -- you have Iran and Syria involved -- your role is particularly crucial there to set the tone?
Yes, I think because this place is full of satellite dishes and TV sets and different sects and religions and opinions as well, it is definitely a ground for television and for us to operate. And Lebanon is very kind to us in terms of allowing us to move around. I would say that people are very positive when it comes to understanding the television game. This is quite important. Even the ones that disagree with you, they will allow you to move around; they will give you a chance to see them; they will let you interview them. So I think they are very media-conscious people, actually. Al Arabiya in particular has played a very major role in the past years in Lebanon because a lot of big news was announced for the first time by Al Arabiya. A lot of the pictures were seen on Al Arabiya. A lot of the important interviews somehow came from Al Arabiya. So, obviously, I think it makes sense that we are quite influential in Lebanon.
Did you interview Hezbollah?
We interviewed a lot of Hezbollah. We interviewed Nasrallah [a Hezbollah leader and Shiite cleric] before the war, obviously. During the war, he tried to take a side, and he decided to take a side against us, indirectly, I would say. We provided heavy coverage of the war, all the way from the borders where the Israeli tanks moved in, all the way to the north near the Syrian-Lebanese borders. We were literally everywhere there.
Al Jazeera did not mention anything about how the Americans decided to keep El-Adid as their biggest military base in the region. Complete silence on this -- absolutely. When Americans moved from Saudi Arabia and they went to Qatar, it was never mentioned at all. Total silence now for six years. When Qatar was built by the Israelis during the Lebanese crisis, it was total silence. It was us who brought the news. They [Al Jazeera] never mentioned it at all. All they mentioned was that Qatar gave $200 million to the Lebanese as assistance. I can give you a long list of things that Al Jazeera doesn't show on television, and I can give you also a long list of things I don't show on television about the Saudis. So we are equal in this matter, I think. They never mentioned an Israeli office, which is only probably one mile away from the station -- never, not once. They interviewed Israelis everywhere except in Qatar, you know. And they bashed Mauritanians, Jordanians, Tunisians, for having Israeli offices there. They bashed them literally -- all the time. You can see blood on the street, but they never mentioned the Israelis on Al Jazeera at all.
That's very interesting.
It's a hypocrisy. The English channel they launched yesterday or the day before yesterday, ... they call the ones killed Palestine martyrs. In The English one, they call them just dead people. While they are martyrs in one language, they are just dead in the other language. That's hypocrisy.
You don't use those words?
We use "dead." I told them, I'm the TV station manager; I'm not God.
Will you talk about Al Jazeera on camera?
Yeah. OK, fine.
You mentioned hypocrisy and accommodation. Are you the only one that accommodates?
No. Everyone accommodates. The others, they will accuse us of everything, but they will never mention any problems with their own countries or their own governments. They will not talk about the Americans in their own lands; they will never mention the Americans. They will not talk about Israelis, if they do exist on their own soil. So if you have an Israeli office just one mile away from your TV station and you don't mention it, and you complain about other countries, I will call this, you know, accommodation.
And a large American base?
And a big American base, yes -- the biggest in the region.
Which had previously been in Saudi Arabia and was quite an issue.
It was an issue when the Saudis had the Americans there after the Kuwaiti war. The media at that time were accusing the Saudis of helping Americans. When the Saudis asked the Americans to leave and they went to other places, suddenly lights were switched off. No one talks about American bases; nobody talks about the Israeli office. I will call it, you know, accommodation. A TV person can't claim that he's 100 percent free when he ignores these issues.
Let me talk about the language used in the news and how you address that.
This is a very sensitive issue. Because news must be neutral. That's what we are taught in school -- media school. News is always neutral. Opinion is for everybody. So when it comes to news, we are just trying to tell facts. Let's say, five Palestinians are killed or five Iraqis are killed or five Saudis are killed or 10 Egyptians are killed. Some TV stations will call them martyrs on account of their own politics. So if a country is a favorite of theirs, the dead ones will be called martyrs. To us, no; we treat them equally. If five are killed, we call them five dead people in Palestine.
What about U.S. forces in Iraq? What kind of language do you use for them?
If they are killed, they are dead. We don't call them enemies; we don't call them friends; we don't call them resistance. We don't use this language or color that will influence opinion.
We don't call them occupiers, no. We call them American forces in Iraq, because, legally or technically speaking, the U.N. decision is that the government of Iraq invited them now. Before, we used to call them occupiers, but the U.N. decision changed that. But we allow our people on television -- I'm talking about the discussion panels -- to use whatever language they want. They call them occupiers; they call them freedom fighters -- whatever they want to call them, it's their business. In news, we should stick to the rules, one of which is to remain neutral.