INTERVIEW-Saudi media empire tries to counter opposition
By Andrew Hammond
RIYADH, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has extended its influence over pan-Arab media to try to counter opposition political movements that challenge the U.S.-allied monarchy, a Saudi media mogul said this week.
Using its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has built up a vast media empire since the early 1990s that filters out criticism of Saudi domestic and foreign policy and floods Arab audiences with music videos, Hollywood films and soft-focus apolitical Islam.
"There is a feeling that Saudi Arabia is an important state that has to have a presence in the media and it must not leave to others what we see and read," said Dawood al-Shirian, Saudi Arabia manager of the Saudi-owned MBC television and radio network, defending Saudi influence.
"This (media influence) has played a role in opening up the Arab world and revealing the falseness of some ideologies such as Arab nationalism, the Left and political Islam," he added, listing populist political movements that the Saudi royals have long regarded as threats to their rule.
The Dubai-based MBC Group, set up in 1991, has six entertainment television channels, two radio channels, and in 2003 added news channel al-Arabiya. Saudi royals and business allies also own entertainment networks ART and Orbit, Lebanon's LBC International, the Rotana group and pan-Arab newspapers al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat.
In addition, state media in most Arab countries including Egypt avoid news that could offend the Saudi rulers.
Arab media have largely gone along with a Saudi media campaign against Iran over its growing influence in the Arab world, though many Arabs consider Israel more of a threat.
Saudi Arabia and the West suspect Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons -- which Israel is widely considered to possess -- and have seen Iranian influence spread in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
"Iran has done nothing for the Palestinians in 50 years. All it's done is slogans," said Shirian, a liberal who also writes a weekly column in the London-based al-Hayat.
But opposition groups across the Arab world have long accused Saudi Arabia itself of not using close ties to Washington and prestige as home to Islam's holiest sites to back the Palestinians' fight against Israeli occupation since 1967.
Qatar's Al-Jazeera, which most polls say is the most watched Arab news channel, remains the biggest media challenge to Saudi Arabia as well as pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.
Shirian is one of a group of Saudi liberals who fell foul of the authorities over their calls for political and social reforms after the Sept. 11 attacks, which focussed Western attention on Saudi Arabia's austere Wahhabi form of Islam.
Like many, he returned to the official fold, taking his current post last year as the government tried to co-opt intellectuals.
"Democracy can bring opportunists and others. Let society develop in the right way," Shirian said, criticising parliamentary systems in Egypt, Turkey and Kuwait. "Reform takes place in a Saudi context, i.e. 'don't push things'."
Saudi opposition figures say experiments such as Kuwait's parliament have at least entrenched the idea of accountability and helped discourage corruption. Analysts say the Saudi royals and political elite fear Islamists could gain in elections.