PROFILE: 'The island' goes global - Ali Mohammed Kamal, Marketing director, Al Jazeera

Arabic TV channel Al Jazeera doesn't feature highly - if at all - on the average UK media buying schedule. But the station, which achieved instant notoriety as Osama Bin Laden's medium of choice, is becoming a serious player on the global media stage.

Al Jazeera's marketing director does not reflect the controversial - to Western eyes at least - nature of his brand. Ali Mohammed Kamal, 38, is a softly spoken businessman who makes pleasant jokes about bringing the sunshine to London - then taking it away again.

Al Jazeera, he explains, means 'the island', after the Qatar peninsula where it has its headquarters. Launched in 1996 following a relaxation of censorship laws by the Qatari government, which also part-funds it, its aim was to provide a source of independent news and information for Arabic viewers across the world from an Arabic point of view. Until Al Jazeera's launch, Arabic viewers' choice was limited to local, state-controlled media or Western radio and TV services.

"Everyone was turning to the BBC or CNN for information about their own countries," says Kamal.

The station's motto is 'the opinion and the counter opinion'. To Western ears this positioning sounds rather basic - gauche even. But in Arabic-speaking countries, where freedom of speech has traditionally been the exception rather than the rule, it is a radical proposition.

"Al Jazeera has started a revolution in Arabic media. In the past, in some Arab countries, even faxes were censored. This revolution is reflected positively in all media; most of the channels try to copy Al Jazeera programmes. It has become a standard," says Kamal.

Six years from launch, the channel has 26 offices worldwide, global coverage and claims to reach almost 90% of the Arabic speaking population, and to be watched by 30 million viewers. In the UK, it is available on Sky Digital and Westminster Cable and claims to have between 300,000 and 400,000 viewers. Kamal says that Al Jazeera's perceived independence has stood the channel in good stead with its target market.

"We have found the channel has a lot of credibility. We give all politicians and religious parties the chance to talk on our channel. Based on that, we found a lot of viewers changed from Western (media) to Al Jazeera."

Eighty per cent of the channel's revenues come from advertising, with multi-nationals such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Lexus and General Motors all advertising on the service, according to Kamal. But he admits advertiser relations with the channel can come under strain. He refuses to give specifics but says that in Arabic countries where Al Jazeera news stories have upset the authorities, advertisers have come under pressure to pull their advertising.

Kamal freely admits that the events of September 11 and the channel's decision to broadcast the Bin Laden tapes benefited Al Jazeera. "After September 11, Al Jazeera became a global brand because exclusive pictures from Al Jazeera, together with our logo, were shown on all TV channels around the world, and on the front pages of newspapers and magazines," he says.

Following on from the Al Qaida exclusive, other extreme muslim groups have targeted the channel with exclusive videos, clearly seeing it as a credible vehicle for their message. The Chechen rebels behind Moscow's fatal theatre siege sent a video tape outlining their case, exclusively to Al Jazeera.

Partly as a consequence of its ability to secure such exclusives - which while controversial, otherwise might not be heard - the station now has agreements with channels such as CNN to exchange news footage.

To build on this awareness, Al Jazeera is exploring brand extension.

Al Jazeera branded eyewear, T-shirts, mugs and watches, featuring its distinctive teardrop logo, will all soon be available.

There will also be a range of Zeena toiletries products, named after the channel's women's magazine programme, in order to broaden Al Jazeera's appeal to women. The goods, which will be launched in the first quarter of next year, will be promoted on the channel and can be ordered from the Al Jazeera web site. And as a result of agreements with licensees, they will also be available in high-street stores.

There are also plans to launch two channels: a documentary channel to be known as The Commentary Channel and a business channel, dedicated to Arabic business issues and the Arabic stock exchange.

But perhaps most significantly, Kamal has hired Saatchi & Saatchi Beirut to help reposition it from a pan-Arabic brand to a global brand, along similar lines to CNN after the Gulf War. The agency will create a global press campaign next year using the strapline: 'We have the right not to remain silent'.

According to Kamal, the repositioning, accompanied by the introduction of English subtitles and dubbing of broadcasts into English, is aimed at broadening Al Jazeera's viewer base to target non-Arabic viewers in English speaking countries.

"We are trying to create a dialogue between East and West, and Muslim and Christianity. If we provide more information and education there will be more understanding and more peace," says Kamal.


1985-1996: Sales clerk, then operation and marketing manager, Qatar

Cable Vision for Q-Tel (Qatar Telecom)

1996-present: Marketing director, Al Jazeera Channel


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