Saudi to accelerate propaganda war and rival Netflix in new streaming deal  

The propaganda war between rivals in the Middle East is set to become more heated with Saudi Arabia, which owns the largest video streaming service in the region, deciding to expand its media assets to challenge Netflix.

With 140 million viewers every day across the Middle East, the Dubai based Saudi controlled MBC Group has revealed plans to launch a series of initiatives that will see an increase in productions; global content acquisitions; product and technology investments; and partnerships with leading eco-system participants.

The initiative is seen to be part of Riyadh’s efforts to wage fierce propaganda wars against rivals Iran and Qatar. MBC is hoping that its pre-eminence in Arabic TV entertainment will help it catch up with Netflix and fend off other on-demand streaming services, such as Starz Play, Wavo and Amazon.

MBC will hire new executives to broaden its digital and video on demand service, named Shahid, with plans to develop new Arabic content, the Financial Times reported citing people briefed in the plans.

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It signals Riyadh’s intent to win the propaganda war. MBC has already launched a production house, MBC Studios, which is working on new films and shows to feed the video service with historical biopics of Arab leaders and dramatizing folk tales such as “1,001 Arab Nights”. The Saudi satellite broadcaster also plans to buy content from the rest of the world.

Commenting on the new initiative, MBC Group CEO was reported in technology news sites saying that the channel reached 140 million viewers every day across the Middle East and its new challenge was to “boost the volume of premium video content both from MBC Studios and further afield, to upgrade our technology and to extend our distribution”.

MBC’s expansion is thought to be a potential challenge to Netflix’s regional dominance. The American streaming service fell out with the Saudi regime last week over an episode of a comedy show in which the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, is mocked for the way he handled the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pressure from Riyadh eventually forced producers to pull the show; a decision that was widely condemned.

MBC Group came under majority government ownership last year in the wake of what was billed as an “anti-corruption” shakedown at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in November 2017. In a deal that was denounced as “extortion” the media group’s founder and chairman of its Board of Directors Waleed Al Ibrahim was released after relinquishing 60 per cent of MBC’s shares to the Saudi regime.

This is a major shift in MBC’s traditional role. The group, founded in 1991, had been operating at arm’s length from government control which allowed space for it to air more liberal programmes than Saudi state television. This is all set to change under the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is seeking to use the most popular media group in the region as a propaganda arm of Riyadh.

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Since the crown prince, known also as MBS, came to prominence, Saudi Arabia adopted a more aggressive posture on the global stage. Its financial muscle has been used to wage wars and counter opposition groups in the tumultuous region as well as to shape political debate through its media arm.

According to the FT, Saudi Research & Marketing Group, a publisher controlled by the family of King Salman, has agreed to launch a news channel with Bloomberg, known as Bloomberg Asharq. Though speculation has grown about its future since Khashoggi’s killing, Nabeel Al-Khatib, project director for Bloomberg Asharq, was last week named general manager at a sister station of MBC, government-owned news channel Al Arabiya.