The largest broadcaster in the Middle East is expanding its video streaming service in an attempt to compete with Netflix in the Arab world while the Saudi government increases its use of media assets in regional power battles, according to people briefed on the plans.
The initiative of the Dubai-based Saudi-based MBC group is part of Riyadh's efforts to wage fierce propaganda wars against rival Iran and Qatar.
Media, ranging from satellite news to football rights, have become light weapons for governments, including the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, since the region has been re-ordered since the Arab riots of 2011.
MBC will hire former Hulu executive Johannes Larcher to expand its on-demand video and digital service called Shahid with plans to develop new content in Arabic, people said.
MBC's recently launched production company, MBC Studios, is already working on new films and programs to power the video service, people added, including historical biographies of Arab leaders and a dramatization of the popular tales of 1,001 Nights. MBC also plans to buy content from the rest of the world.
The potential challenge for Netflix's regional dominance comes when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman faces the consequences of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which he was blamed.
At the request of the Saudi government, Netflix recently pulled out a comedy series episode Ata Patriot with Hasan Minhaj, who criticized Prince Mohammed after the Khashoggi affair, renewing concerns about freedom of expression.
The government placed 11 Saudis on trial for Khashoggi's murder and denied that Prince Mohammed was involved.
MBC, which reaches 140 million satellite and online viewers in the region, came under government ownership last year after the Crown Prince's anti-corruption extortion in November 2017. One of the hundreds of princes and tycoons detained in the Ritz-Carlton the hotel was MBC's president, Waleed al-Ibrahim, who retained his 40% stake in the company and nominal management control, but the remaining holdings were transferred to a finance ministry subsidiary.
MBC, which was founded in 1991, traditionally operated remotely from government control, showing a more liberal programming than Saudi state television, albeit within the confines of "family" content.
"The current internal standards that apply to the on-screen TV will be applied to the original Shahid," said one of the people.
Saudi Arabia has sought to use its financial strength in Arab media to shape the political debate in the tumultuous region where Riyadh and its ally Abu Dhabi have lined up against Iran and imposed a trade embargo on Qatar for supporting political Islam, most vividly through your Al Jazeera Network.
The Saudi Marketing and Research Group, a publisher controlled by King Salman's family, the Saudi monarch, agreed to launch a news channel with Bloomberg, known as Bloomberg Asharq, despite speculation about its future since Khashoggi's assassination.
Nabeel al-Khatib, Bloomberg project director Asharq, was appointed general manager at a sister station of MBC, the state news channel Al Arabiya. He replaced Turki al-Dakhil, a counselor to Prince Mohammed, in a senior management change on the network.
MBC hopes its prominence in Arabic TV entertainment will help them reach Netflix and defend themselves against other on-demand streaming services such as Starz Play, Wavo and Amazon.
Last year, Shahid's video service had 72 million users, including 600,000 subscribers to its premium service.
Netflix has grown rapidly in the Middle East, with the largest paid subscriber base of 1.7 million people across the Arab world, according to Simon Murray, senior analyst at Digital TV Research, a UK consultancy.
"There is already a lot of competition in the Arab world, but Netflix stands out – largely because of its international appeal and original content," Murray said.
Saudi investors have also established a London-based Farsi-language news network, Iran International, to serve Iranian viewers.
Iranian officials suspect the channel is supported by the Saudi government and is a tool in the growing regional media war. A spokesman for Iran International has denied any state funding.
Additional reporting by Andrew England and Cynthia O & # 39; Murchu in London