Saudis suspect US government behind Murdoch-linked channel

Forget US-funded propaganda. If you want to fight Middle Eastern extremism, your best bet is ... David Letterman.

That's the conclusion reached in a US State Department cable released by WikiLeaks. According to a May, 2009, report from the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia, American TV shows are doing more to combat extremism in the Middle Eastern country than all the money the US government is spending on pro-American media.

The cable, unearthed by the Guardian, also reveals something that observers of the Saudi kingdom have been whispering for the past few years: That, despite the country's observance of Muslim law, King Abdullah has embarked on a campaign to Westernize his nation, and TV is part of that strategy.

In a missive titled "David Letterman: Agent of Influence," US diplomats report that "the American programming on channels 4 and 5 were proving the most popular among Saudis. A look at the December 17 programming menu for MBC channel 4 reveals a 24-hour solid block of such programs as CBS and ABC Evening News, David Letterman, Desperate Housewives, Friends and similar fare, all uncensored and with Arabic subtitles."

The cable then goes on to say that the commercial programming is "winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that 'Al Hurra' and other US propaganda never could."

Al-Hurra is a US-funded, Arabic-language satellite channel that broadcasts in the Middle East.

But the cables also reveal that this new appreciation for US television is no accident -- it's part of a concerted effort by King Abdullah to fight extremism by Westernizing his country.

Unidentified sources in the Saudi media told the US diplomat that "[t]he government is pushing this new openness as a means of countering the extremists. ... It's still all about the War of Ideas here... Saudis are now very interested in the outside world, and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before."

The cable notes that the "Saudi regulatory system offers the al-Saud regime a means to manipulate the nation's print media to promote its own agenda without exercising day-to-day oversight over journalists, and that the Saudi king has been issuing directives to the media "to adopt progressive perspectives as an antidote to extremist thinking."

The cable also notes Saudi suspicion about Rotana, one of the channels mentioned as broadcasting US television. Rotana recently entered into a co-ownership agreement with News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch.

"So effective has US programming been ... that it is widely assumed that the [US government] must be behind it," the cable states. "Some believe ... that Prince Talal's relationship with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and its sister company Twentieth Century Fox has a clear ideological motive behind it, noting that the Fox Movie Channel on Rotana is available for free to anyone with a satellite dish."

The cable also reports that "one of Rupert Murdoch's sons ... recently had a three-hour discussion" with Saudi news outlet Al-Eqtisadiah about launching an Arabic version of the Wall Street Journal.