A talk with Middle East media mogul

Sheikh Waleed bin Ibrahim al Ibrahim, CEO of The Middle East Broadcasting Company.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: At this point in the week you might fairly be wondering exactly how Dubai has managed to generate all the growth it has. Because it's not like it's a cheap proposition for companies to come and set up shop over here. Oil is the easy answer of course. But if you want to earn some extra credit try this: free zones. They've got a fist full of them. And the competitive advantages they give are pretty clear.

Dr. Amina Al Rustamani: For example 100 percent ownership of the business, if you go outside of the free zone you would require a partner to establish this business. Also we have 50 years guarantee tax free.

Dr. Amina Al Rustamani runs one of the biggest free zones here -- Dubai Media City. As with just about everything else here Media City's a conscious effort to turn Dubai in to a regional and then a global hub. Anybody care to guess how it's working out?

Dr. Amina Al Rustamani: Oh my god. We have the big names, BBC, CNN, Leo Burnett, Starcom, OMC, MBC! We have the new ones...

RYSSDAL: That last one, MBC, is the one we're interested in today. The Middle East Broadcasting Company. MBC runs the Al Arabiya news channel, a competitor to Al Jazeera, as well as six other entertainment feeds. It airs a good deal of American content, too. You can watch Oprah over here, if you're so inclined. MBC is run by a member of the Saudi royal family, Sheikh Waleed bin Ibrahim. For this month's Conversation from the Corner Office, I met the sheikh at his office in Media City. I asked him why he started MBC in the first place.

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: I think it was a bit primitive. We went to school in America in the early 80s and we realized we really didn't have television, you know? We had propaganda. Media machines for government. Doesn't try to become commercial television. And the need was obvious.

RYSSDAL: You started this company in London, spent ten years there. Now you are here in Dubai. Why Dubai?

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: The credit is to them not to us, because they did a pretty good job in convincing us to move and I'm really glad that we came.

RYSSDAL: What was the sales pitch to you for Dubai when you sat does with the sheikh.

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: Freedom of speech. Because that's the only thing that made us go to London in the first place. And he went through tests that I know about during the Iraq war, even from the Americans. Rumsfeld was not happy with a lot of Al Arabiya sometimes. And they tried to put pressure on the sheikh. He said look if you can shut your tv stations in the U.S. then I can shut these guys down. I put them in a free zone: Media City. And I'm not going to change it.

RYSSDAL: Do you think that this company has a role in trying to make people understand the region a little bit better?

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: Oh yes. The real message is for these people to understand eachother first and then reflect that one the outside world. I'm Saudi but I'm also an Arab Muslim in the Middle East who is looking for change like many people in my generation who are looking to see this part of the world evolving to become modern, become fit for our children to live in. Everyone try from his side. And I happen to be in the media.

RYSSDAL: Have you ever had with Al Arabiya or any of your other channels and networks religious or political problems with the government in this region?

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: Every day.

RYSSDAL: Every day?

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: Yeah, they understand us and we understand them so we really have mastered, I think by now, how we deal with them on that. It's normal. I think everybody deals with it. All media in the world have some kind of problems with some either governments or lobbyists. You have your share there, everywhere.

RYSSDAL: You've established a pretty powerful brand here in this company. And I'm wondering if you have ambition in the wider world of entertainment in the Middle East. Movies? A music label? What's on your mind?

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: Uh, the way we are expanding today, believe me, it's becoming even more than what I planned myself. I think my role right now is fading. It's not anymore the one man show that it was in the early 90s when we can only see less than a meter in front of us. You know, I think today if there's anything I accomplished it's to have a system in place and whether I'm there or not, what you see now is there forever. It's not anymore about me.

RYSSDAL: So are you looking for anything else to do?

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: Oh, you know, maybe an early retirement. I'd love that, you know. Spend some time with my children. I think, uh, yeah.

RYSSDAL: Sheikh Waleed bin Ibrahim is the CEO of MBC. Excellency, thank you.

SHEIKH WALEED BIN IBRAHIM: Thank you very much.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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