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Message from Saudi Arabia: good journalism is good business

The Saudi Media Forum in Riyadh illustrates the kingdom's growing bravado

A market vendor reads a newspaper in Riyadh. Saudi media is 'way behind' where it ought to be, said one expert Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser
A market vendor reads a newspaper in Riyadh. Saudi media is 'way behind' where it ought to be, said one expert

It’s a cliché nowadays that you experience something new in Riyadh each time you travel there. But it is true for all that – and deserves repetition.

This time, I had my first taste of the newly redeveloped terminal 4 at King Khalid International Airport, which serves non-domestic Saudia flights.

Modern, spacious and with more than enough immigration desks to cater for arrivals, it compares favourably with Dubai’s terminal 1, which I had just left. T1 always feels slightly parochial, given Dubai’s glitzy global image.

The refurbished A320 Saudia business class cabin had been pretty good too, and the Chevy Tahoe pick-up was much appreciated.

Also new – for me anyway – was the sight of actual rolling stock on the Riyadh metro system. The urban rail network has been under construction for many years, but the sight of an empty passenger car – still testing – trundling high overhead was proof that the goal of operational public transport is nigh in the capital.

The rail-car looked spectral and serene moving slowly through the street-level gridlock, minus passengers, reminiscent of the Dubai Marina tram.

I was in Riyadh as a panelist at the Saudi Media Forum. It is the third time the kingdom has staged this event but the first at the modernist monumentalism of the Hilton Riyadh hotel and residences, one of the many new hotel complexes rising up in the city under the Vision 2030 diversification strategy.

I had been increasingly apprehensive as my session – titled “What is the Shape of Future Media?” – neared, after I learned the identity of my fellow panelists.

Dr Fahad Al Agran is the venerable president of the Saudi Press Agency, an expert voice in regional media matters, and the panel moderator; co-panelist Joyce Baz is head of communications for Google in the Mena region and an eloquent advocate for the new digital technologies that have upended traditional media over the past couple of decades.

Electronics, Mobile Phone, Phone

Was I being set up as the old European media dinosaur for on-stage humiliation over my ignorance of current technology and the potential that AI must bring to modern media?

I needn’t have worried. A couple of hours with ChatGPT (the irony!) the evening before brought me up to speed on the current issues, and I counted on the street-wisdom of 40 years in journalism for the rest.

I think I performed adequately, although it’s hard to tell with these forum sessions. If you’re not actually booed offstage by a fruit-throwing mob, you must count it a success, I believe.

The two-day forum – organised by the Saudi Broadcasting Authority – was more substantial and more extensive than I expected, and carried off with a swagger. It was packed, with a distinctly mid-20s demographic and more women than men in the audience, as far as I could tell. 

There was a good sample of international media present. I chatted to correspondents from the BBC and the Financial Times, and the Israeli commentator I spoke to was thoroughly enjoying his first trip to the kingdom.

The live panels did not shy away from current hot topics: the challenges of reporting on the Gaza conflict, the threat of disinformation and fake news, and the challenges of an independent media in the region.

The agenda had its fair share of grandiose mission statements, like the declaration that 2024 would be the “year of Saudi media transformation” – whatever that means. But there were also some pretty granular deals announced too.

The Media Ministry intends a state-of-the-art AI centre for Saudi media and a collaboration with Google to support local news organisations and protect online safety. It is good to see Google investing in the media industry in recognition of the extensive use it makes of mainstream content.

All positive outcomes there, but I can only quote my old friend Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, who said: “I must call a spade a spade: Saudi media is way behind where it ought to be.”

Some idea of how Saudi media might get there in practice was provided by Juan Señor, president of Innovation Media Consulting and an expert on global news media. He offered a detailed and impactful presentation on the big challenge of the current media scene: how to make news media a commercial success.

The theme was “good journalism is good business” and his conclusion was: “Re-invest in quality journalism, because only journalism will save journalism”. 

He was mobbed like a rock-star at the end of his session.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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