Saudi Arabia may be facing the world’s scorn over the murder last month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But just a few months ago, its concerns apparently were much different — how to use a new entertainment television project to make itself seem a more appealing tourist destination.
The Saudis were shooting high: One Saudi lawyer contacted Tom Johnson, the former head of CNN, this summer, Johnson said. Johnson, who retired from CNN in 2001, declined to name the lawyer and said he did not recall the name of the Saudi man the lawyer was representing.
But he did recall that the project the lawyer was calling about was setting up a television channel that would be devoted to entertainment. The lawyer wanted to know if Johnson could provide the names of possible staff members. Johnson said he didn’t provide any. (A second source confirmed that the Saudis had contacted Johnson.)
Johnson also said the lawyer told him that he’d approached Fox News about producing content. A Fox News spokesperson said nobody knew anything about such discussions, and a 21st Century Fox spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But the interaction may speak to a larger Saudi effort — to redo its image not only by buying support in the United States, but also by investing in entertainment.
Even before the Khashoggi murder, the Saudis have been on the losing end of rivalries in the Gulf region for some time. Al Jazeera, owned by Saudi rival Qatar, already has the world’s eye as the most authoritative Arab-language news channel. Saudi Arabia’s airline, Saudia, is considered a lackluster competitor to Qatar Airways, Qatar’s airline.
But Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and heir apparent, had indicated, before the Khashoggi case, that he wanted to change that — and that entertainment would be the way to do it. His Vision 2030 plan called for investment in the entertainment sector to create jobs for young people. In 2017, Saudi Arabia announced plans to open a 129-square-mile “entertainment city” on Riyadh’s edge featuring cultural and sporting activities.
An entertainment channel broadcast from Saudi Arabia to the region has the potential to go a long way in changing Saudi Arabia’s dour image as a place where women still dress in all-black and must be accompanied by a male relative in public and the preferred method of execution is public beheading with a sword.
Asked whether he got a sense of why his interlocutor’s client was going forward with such a channel, Johnson said, “To the best of my memory, the channel was described as an entertainment channel that would not be a news channel and it was felt that this channel might very well help tourism in Saudi Arabia and in the region.” He said he was told that airlines and hotels might benefit from such a channel.
It was unclear whether the outreach to Johnson was related to SBC, a channel meant to show films, talk shows, and cooking programs that was announced as part of the country’s reform efforts last May, or to MBC, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, which is based in Dubai but is said to be owned by the Saudi royal family.
MBC owns Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language news channel based in Dubai and seen as the answer to Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates made closing Al Jazeera one of their demands when they began the blockade of Qatar in June 2017; that demand has not been met, and the blockade is ongoing.
But while Al Arabiya has been “nipping at the heels” of Al Jazeera, according to Andrew Mills, assistant professor in the journalism and strategic communication program at Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar, when it comes to Gulf state media, “There’s Al Jazeera, and then there’s everything else.”
Mills also said it is “not uncommon” for senior officials in the Gulf to decide to bring in Western media figures to professionalize their operation.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to a request for comment. Of course, the Khashoggi murder may have overshadowed Saudi Arabia’s entertainment and tourism planning.