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Oct. 8 2009 - 4:30 am | 309 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Al-Jazeera’s new owner… an American Jew?

A handout photo released by the Israeli Govern...

Haim Saban (L), man about town. Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Time for Mighty Morphin Zionist al-Jazeera? Haim Saban, the Egyptian-born Jewish businessman who made it rich with kiddie television, is in talks to buy half of al-Jazeera. Egyptian newspaper al-Mesryoon reports that Saban — original in Arabic and imperfect Google translation here — has made an offer to purchase 50% of al-Jazeera from the current majority owner, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar. The amount of the proposed transaction was not discussed. Al-Jazeera, the most popular news network in the Arab world, spawned a media revolution in the region after it was founded in 1996. New networks such as al-Arabiyya and state-funded 24/7 Arabic news channels like al-Hurra (USA), al-Alam (Iran) and French 24 Arabic quickly sprouted up. Despite the fact that al-Jazeera is a basic component of daily life in the Arab world, the station’s finances have been in a questionable state for years. Among others, Saudi Arabian advertisers have an unofficial boycott of al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera is owned by the Sheik of Qatar, is reliant on his financial largesse and does not broadcast shows critical of the Qatari government. Al-Jazeera broadcasts shows crticial of all other governments in the Arab world.

Here’s the thing. Saban previously made an offer to purchase al-Jazeera in 2004, but was turned down by al-Thani. That was before the economic downturn. We’ll get back to that later.

Saban grew up in Alexandria, Egypt and was one of the many Jewish-Egyptian residents who fled abroad due to Nasser’s hostility to Jews. His family migrated across the border to Israel and Saban’s early years were spent in Israel’s television and concert industries. From there, he moved to France and then the United States.

In the United States, Saban became a children’s television mogul — his production company worked on shows such as He-Man and Inspector Gadget in the 1980s and moved on to producing the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and VR Troopers in the 1990s. Along the way, Saban diversified: His sale of Fox Family in collaboration with News Corporation in 2001 landed approximately $1.6 billion in his pocket and the Egyptian-Israeli-American mogul leads the group that operates Spanish-language network Univision. Wealthy guy.

The catch? Saban’s formative experiences as a Jewish refugee from Egypt and his subsequent life have led him to becaome a prominent supporter of Israel and of, recently, the right-wing Netanyahu government. Saban was well known for his very public pro-Israel lobbying during the Clinton years, and for his more under-the-table dealings since. Saban funds the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, a prominent DC think tank headed up by Martin Indyk and Kenneth Pollack.

Given the level of hostility to Israel (and, for that matter, Jews) in the Arab world, it is easy to imagine a Saban-owned al-Jazeera quickly losing all credibility among its viewer base. A Saban purchase would likely lead to a massive staff exodus and serve as an unbelievable gift to rival network al-Arabiyya.

But the Qatari government has had well-known political problems, the Sheik has been known for bold moves in the past and Qatar is in a tricky geopolitical situation vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia.

If I was a gambling man, I’d give this story 50-50 odds between being disinformation masking an outside bid or a true — and strange — story. Either way, I don’t think we’ve heard the last about a change in al-Jazeera’s ownership.


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    About Me

    A New York-based journalist and blogger who has spent extensive time in the Middle East and is currently working on an MA thesis in Middle Eastern Studies. My thesis focuses on the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations and their coverage in the international media.

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    Contributor Since: July 2009
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