Bahrain has moved to shut down permanently the recently launched satellite TV station set up by Prince Alwaleed, the Saudi billionaire, illustrating the difficulties faced by independent media in the increasingly restrictive Gulf states.
The information ministry in Bahrain has requested that the Alarab station, which was taken off air within the first 24 hours of its debut broadcast this month, dismantle its operations in Manama, an official told the Financial Times.
“All contracts have been terminated,” the official said on Friday.
The closure is a blow to Prince Alwaleed, whose investment vehicle Kingdom Holding recently sold most of its stake in News Corporation. Alarab hired about 280 staff in Manama, the Bahraini capital, in an effort to compete with other Arabic-language stations, such as Al Jazeera, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi’s Sky News Arabia, a joint venture with BSkyB.
It is unclear whether the channel, estimated to have cost as much as $200m to set up, will relaunch in a different location or close permanently. Prince Alwaleed’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Alarab was taken off air within hours on its February 1 launch after its debut interview featured a senior member of al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s main opposition group, which focused on Bahrain’s decision to strip dozens of citizens of their nationality, accusing them of threatening state security.
Those targeted were largely drawn from activists from the island’s majority Shia population who have been campaigning for greater rights from the minority Sunni-led government. Some Bahrainis who have joined the ranks of Sunni jihadi groups also had their nationality withdrawn.
Bahrain officials have denied that the closure was related to the interview with Khalil al-Marzooq, one of al-Wefaq’s leaders. Isa Abdulrahman, Bahrain’s information minister, was later interviewed on the same issue. However, channel insiders have denied claims in Bahrain that Alarab was preparing to interview a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as Isis).
Jamal Khashoggi, Alarab’s general manager, had regularly defended Bahrain’s government since the outbreak of widespread unrest in the country four years ago. However, the station’s closure underlines the sensitivity that news coverage generates in the Gulf as the region witnesses growing instability with the rise of Sunni jihadist groups and a crackdown on moderate Islamism.
News coverage of the Arab uprisings and their aftermath has divided the region along political, religious and sectarian lines. Shia stations in Iran and Lebanon have upset the Bahraini authorities for their coverage, while Shia demonstrators have criticised reporting of their protests in Arab Gulf states that have backed Bahrain’s crackdown on dissent.
Doha-based Al Jazeera, which revolutionised the region’s television news in the 1990s with its hard-hitting coverage, has fuelled anti-Qatari sentiment for its reporting on Egypt and other locations, which its critics say is biased towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
Prince Alwaleed, Saudi Arabia’s most prominent investor with media interests, including a stake in Twitter, announced that Manama would be the channel’s headquarters in late 2011. At the time, locating the channel in Bahrain was viewed as a vote of confidence in the troubled island state.
Under the deal, Bahrain pledged financial incentives of $10m a year for 10 years to the channel, as well as another $7m a year for Prince Alwaleed’s media company, Rotana, in which Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox has a stake. The authorities also provided discounted government services, such as various IT costs, rent and visas.
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