Saudi TV Station Opens Channel in Iraq

Iraqi politician Nouri Al-Maliki denounced the new channel as an interference in Iraqi affairs. (Wikimedia Commons)

Iraqi politician Nouri Al-Maliki denounced the new channel as an interference in Iraqi affairs. (Wikimedia Commons)

Iraqi citizens will have a new TV channel to tune into this February: MBC Iraq, a family-oriented TV station run by Saudi Arabia’s MBC (Middle Eastern Broadcasting Center) group. The MBC group is heavily funded by businessmen close to the Saudi Royal family, stirring up fears of Saudi political encroachment on Iraq’s cultural scene.

Al-Monitor writes that, “according to the programming schedule released by MBC to the media, the majority of content aimed at Iraqi viewers will be entertainment-based. The group has not yet announced any programs that are political in nature.” Indeed, MBC claims it has no political agenda. Sam Barnett, the CEO of the MBC group, explained that MBC Iraq wants to “offer increased localized productions” and provide “opportunities to Iraqi talent and prospects in media to its youth.”

The channel’s programming schedule includes comedy and music shows, many of which feature Iraqi talent. Despite the focus on Iraqi entertainment, politicians are denouncing the move as an attempt to spread Sunni Islamic propaganda in a majority-Shiite Iraq. Al-Monitor quotes Nouri Al-Maliki, the leader of Iraq’s State of Law Coalition, a coalition of Iraqi political parties, as claiming the new channel was established to “interfere in Iraqi affairs.” A parliamentarian from the State of Law Coalition acknowledged that “the axis conflict plays a prominent role in the acceptance or rejection of the Saudi TV channel.”

This “axis conflict” — a battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence in the Middle East — clearly manifests itself in Iraqi media, where Iran already backs many channels, including some that promote political messages. But while Iran may continue to influence the Iraqi airwaves, the MBC group’s entrance onto Iraq’s media scene is one part of a larger Iraqi rapprochement with Saudi Arabia.

Al-Monitor reports that Saudi Arabia “has concluded with Iraq 16 [economic] agreements through the coordination council between the two countries,” including some for flights and farmland. The UAE’s National reports that “Baghdad and Riyadh announced plans to open the Arar border crossing in 2017 for trade for the first time since 1990, when it closed after the two countries cut ties following former dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.” The new Arar border crossing compound, built by a Saudi company, will contain a customs house, hospital, and university.

Recent communication between leaders of the two countries, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman’s guarantee of Iraqi security, suggests that more political and economic cooperation is on the way. While Iraqi politicians may not be pleased about Saudi Arabia’s entrance into their local media scene, Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in Iraq is undeniable. The “axis conflict” seems nowhere close to ending, and Iraq may be its next battleground.