Another twist in the endlessly fascinating (to me) wars between Arab satellite TV stations: al-Arabiya just aired "excerpts Thursday from a purported al-Qaida video showing one of its militants describing how he killed foreigners in Saudi Arabia." According to an al-Arabiya editor interviewed by the AP, al-Arabiya "took the footage from a 68-minute video it found on a militant Islamic Web site"; the video itself dates back to December 2004. That may be a bit confusing in that as part of its competitive marketing strategy,al-Arabiya's PR team and its fans present it as the "moderate" alternative to al-Jazeera, and revel in taking gleeful pokes at al-Jazeera for airing al-Qaeda videos.
Why would al-Arabiya air such a video, which otherwise would have remained confined to a core audience of jihadis (the AP reporter couldn't even get into the password protected chat room where al-Arabiya claims to have found it)? Well, perhaps because it contributes to the Saudi regime's anti-jihadist campaign: airing a video of an al-Qaeda guy admitting to killing Saudi citizens is the same as airing interviews with Salman Awdah or other Islamist "former dissidents". Or perhaps for market reasons pure and simple - to attract ratings, even if its representatives have frequently declared that they wouldn't do that anymore.
I'm more intrigued by a third possibility: perhaps it's part of a strategy of cultivating the Saudi market. This particular al-Qaeda video - unlike, say, Zawahiri videos or videos out of Iraq - are the sort of thing in which Saudi viewers would be far more interested than anyone else. That would fit with Joe Khalil's assessment in a recent article on the Arab media market that al-Arabiya was "emphasizing its local/regional flair... implicating itself in social life of its core Saudi audience." I've noticed in the course of research for a paper I'm writing that al-Arabiya's talk shows feature a lot of Saudis compared to al-Jazeera's: for instance Hussein Shabakshi's business show is almost entirely focused on Saudi Arabia and Turki al-Dakhil's Idha'at program interviews a lot of Saudis (especially Islamist "former dissidents"). Cultivating the Saudi market would make sense for al-Arabiya because of its Saudi funding, and because of the large Saudi advertising market, and because that's where it presumably enjoys something of a comparative advantage.
Such a Saudi-oriented focus might also help account for the Ipsos-Stat findings announced in a recent al-Arabiya press release claiming a big jump in al-Arabiya's lead over al-Jazeera in the Saudi market. Claims generalizing from this reported Saudi performance to the wider Arab market are just spin - there's no evidence in the Ipsos data, or anywhere else I've seen, that the kind of results claimed for Saudi are matched elsewhere (except for the unique case of Iraq, where al-Jazeera has always faced problems). But a divergence between the Saudi market and other markets would be quite interesting - something well worth further investigation. How useful it would be to have reliable, independent, and publicly available Nielsen-type ratings in multiple markets in order to do that kind of research!
In the meantime, Saudi-based viewers of al-Arabiya are invited to comment - have you seen this kind of change?