In the mid-2000s the Arabic version of “Who wants to be a Millionaire” helped to transform the Saudi-based Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) into the region’s largest media empire. Now the company’s founder — a millionaire at least a thousand times over — has been forced to surrender the company to the Saudi government in order to secure his freedom.
Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim was one of more than 150 wealthy elites locked up in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton last fall as part of an anti-graft crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men, was also released in recent days, reportedly in exchange for a large cash payment.
Three quick thoughts here:
Is this a shakeup or a shakedown? Absent any kind of real judicial review or accountability, it’s hard to avoid the perception that what was billed as an anti-graft campaign is actually a bid to concentrate economic and media power in Prince Mohammed’s hands before he becomes king.
Taking MBC gives the Crown Prince a powerful tool to shape the Saudi public’s perceptions of his ascent to power and his controversial reform agenda.
It’s also a platform to shape regional views as tensions rise. MBC’s main rival is the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network, which has always irked the House of Saud. And there’s no love lost between Saudi Arabia and the Qataris at the moment.
So who wants to be a millionaire in today’s Saudi Arabia? To be honest, millionaire is probably the sweet spot — rich enough to be rich, poor enough to stay rich. It’s the billionaires who are in trouble.