Matthew Noujaim lives and breathes hip-hop. But the 19-year-old Beirut university student, who raps about "anything and everything, including the Arab cause" in English and Arabic, has struggled to get his music noticed. Although rap is hugely popular among Middle Eastern youth, it's still underground and largely ignored by the region's record labels, radio stations, and music television channels. "There's lots of good hip-hop made here that never gets played," Noujaim says. "No one's willing to promote local talent."
That's about to change. MTV Arabia, a new 24-hour free satellite channel, will begin broadcasting in Arabic across the Middle East on Nov. 16. The Viacom (VIA)-owned network's flagship show, Hip HopNa ("my hip-hop"), will be co-hosted by Saudi rapper Qusai Khidr and Palestinian-American producer Farid Nassar, aka Fredwreck, who has worked with Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and other marquee names. The show will visit 10 cities across the Middle East in search of talent, giving would-be Arab rap stars an international platform. Noujaim won the show's first competition, and Fredwreck has produced one of his tracks. "This is a music genre that is bubbling underneath the surface here, and we want to claim it as our own," says Bhavneet Singh, head of emerging markets for MTV Networks International (MTVNI).
GLOBALIZATION A GO-GOHow will the likes of Justin Timberlake and Rihanna go down in a region that's not exactly brimming with goodwill toward Americans? Better than you might think. Middle Eastern youth may not agree with U.S. politics, but they can't get enough of Western music and fashion. "The myth about the Arab world is that people go to bed at night hating the U.S. and wake up hating Israel," says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a think tank in Washington. "But go to any mall in Saudi Arabia, and you'll see kids in jeans and baseball caps hanging out at Starbucks (SBUX) and McDonald's (MCD). Globalization is real."
For Viacom, MTV Arabia is just the beginning. The region is attractive because it's awash in petrodollars and two-thirds of the population is under 25. Viacom has signed a 10-year licensing deal between MTV Networks and Tecom Investments, controlled by Dubai's ruler. On Oct. 12, Viacom planned to announce another decade-long licensing deal with Tecom for children's channel Nickelodeon Arabia. That's set for the second half of 2008, and the company reckons an Arabic version of Comedy Central won't be far behind. Also under discussion: Paramount Pictures productions in the region and licensing of Nick's characters for clothing, toys, and games. "The Middle East may be the world's most underappreciated growth story," says Viacom (VIA) Chairman Sumner M. Redstone.
No wonder U.S. media giants are pouring in. NBC Universal in May struck a licensing deal for a $2.2 billion amusement park in Dubai. Days later, Viacom announced plans to create a Nickelodeon section in Dubailand, a $2.5 billion development in the emirate that aims to be the world's largest theme park when it opens in 2011. And in September, Warner Bros. Entertainment announced a multibillion-dollar deal in Abu Dhabi that includes film production, a Warner Bros. theme park and hotel, and a chain of cinemas.
The Westerners will face plenty of homegrown competition. More than 50 music TV channels broadcast in the region. The dominant player, Rotana, owned by Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, is also the Middle East's largest record label and has exclusive contracts with most top-selling pop and folk artists. But MTV is betting it will win viewers by offering an alternative. "No one in this market is going out and asking the viewers what they want," says Abdullatif Al Sayegh, CEO of Arab Media Group, the Tecom unit that runs the channel. "We're spending our time in malls and cafés talking to young people; we're not getting our ideas from watching TV."
MTV Arabia is the biggest test to date of the network's two-decade-old localization strategy. MTV's flagship music channel has seen its American TV ratings slip and has struggled online. Management believes the biggest growth will come overseas, and the network now pumps out a blend of international and local tunes from Russia to Indonesia to Pakistan. That has helped MTV and sister operations, such as VH1 and Nickelodeon, reach 508 million households in 161 countries. "This isn't going to be MTV U.S.," Bill Roedy, vice-chairman of MTV Networks, says of the latest offering. "It is Arabic MTV made by Arabs for Arabs."
That means it'll be pretty tame by American standards. At noon every Friday, Islam's holiest day, the channel will air an animated call to prayer. During peak family viewing hours from 8 to 11 p.m., shows will introduce audiences to acts from the West and from other emerging markets such as India and Pakistan. And there will be Arabic versions of popular MTV shows such as Made, which gives young people coaching in fields like cooking and film.
'EDGY AND FUN'Later in the evening things will loosen up a bit. Al Hara ("the neighborhood") is an Arabic version of Barrio 19, a program that shows what young people do for fun. In the Middle East, that apparently includes dune-bashing (driving all-terrain vehicles over, and into, steep sand dunes) and water soccer, played in what looks like a vast inflatable kiddie pool. Says Rasha Al Emam, the 30-year-old Saudi woman who heads MTV Arabia's programming production: "The idea is to encourage kids to go out and do something edgy and fun instead of sitting around smoking a shisha," or waterpipe.
While plenty of U.S. and European videos will never make it into the line-up, others will be sanitized for the Arab audience. At MTV Arabia's offices, a vast warehouse in Dubai, editors from across the region pore over clips frame by frame to remove offensive content. Bad language? Bleep it out. Shots of kissing, revealing outfits à la Britney Spears, or people on a bed? Blur them, or insert some less racy bit of the video.
That'll be fine with Maram Alhabib. The 23-year-old Saudi studying special education at Jeddah's Dar Al Hekma University loves metal group Seether and American alternative band Three Doors Down, but she finds many music videos to be too provocative. "The Arab channels are boring, they all play the same music and a lot of the videos...are all about seduction," she says. "If MTV focuses on music and issues Arabs care about, people will watch."