Saudi Arabia's window to the free market in international television has been firmly and permanently closed by a government order announced as the Islamic world prepared to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan on 10 March.
The decision, effectively banning satellite television receiving equipment, came as a shock to many in the Gulf advertising industry. Yet, it is surprising that the kingdom's brief dalliance with satellite television since the 1990/91 Kuwait crisis happened at all. Uncontrolled foreign television could never be admitted, in view of the ascetic Muslim principles that shape all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia.
The measure is likely to be copied in Kuwait, where some members of the national assembly are calling for a satellite dish ban. The chairman of Kuwait's parliamentary committee for education, culture and social guidance said in a local press interview earlier in March than many MPs feel that allowing satellite dishes is "a contradiction in terms, as we control and censor our own TV channels yet allow other countries to beam their programmes uncontrolled".
In a sign of things to come, Kuwait is expected to award soon a contract to study the possibility of setting up a cable television system. Sweden Telecoms International is expected to get the job (MEED 25:1:94). Once cable is in, the government can declare dishes to be unnecessary.
Elsewhere in the GCC, steps have already been taken to control foreign satellite television. In Bahrain, the authorities rebroadcast by conventional terrestrial means the Egyptian Space Channel (ESC) service and BBC World Service Television (WSTV), a news and information service produced in London but beamed to the region by Star TV of Hong Kong. Distribution of satellite television receiving equipment is tightly controlled.
In Qatar, TVCN has completed phase one of the Gulf's first nationwide cable network. Long-term plans call for a service delivering 28 channels including leading international services. But not all GCC states are banning dishes. In Oman, the Information Ministry relaxed a total ban on satellite dishes in 1992. The UAE also tolerates dishes.
How to respond to the satellite challenge has been an issue in the Gulf for at least a decade. The possibility of everything from political propaganda to pornography flooding into the region was instantly recognised as a threat to social order.…