Britain's retreat from the Arab world: Farewell to BBC Arabic Radio
BBC Arabic Radio went off the air on 27 January 2023 after 85 years of broadcasting, marking the end of an influential platform for Arabic news and cultural storytelling.
It was founded in 1938 as the first foreign-language radio program launched by the BBC Empire Service in 1932 - renamed BBC Overseas Service in 1939 and BBC World Service in 1965 - to broadcast news to British colonies.
The Arabic-language station was set up to counter Italian and German radio propaganda in Arabic and to promote British interests in the Middle East. Mussolini, for example, set up Radio Bari in 1934 as the first European radio station to broadcast in Arabic to influence Arab public opinion.
"BBC Arabic Radio went off the air on 27 January 2023 after 85 years of broadcasting, marking the end of an influential platform for Arabic news and cultural storytelling"
The closure of BBC Arabic Radio was due to a change in audience demographics and budgetary issues, with a goal of saving around £28.5 million by removing 382 staff roles.
However, the move towards digitalisation has been interpreted by some as the loss of an essential soft power tool for Britain.
The move was first announced in September 2022 when the BBC said it would cease the radio broadcast but not terminate the BBC Arabic media platform as a whole, which will continue to showcase digital content and television programmes.
The BBC claimed that 4% of their audience was radio-only and thus most of their target audience was already following them on TV and digital platforms.
However, considering the relatively small amount of money it hopes to save and the soft power of BBC radio programmes, the decision could be less profitable than it appears.
Britain in the Arab world
Over the years, BBC Radio Arabic has faced numerous challenges due to its position as a public radio channel, implementing a cautious policy that sought to strike a balance between representing British interests and the freedom of the press.
This balance, however, has been tested historically, notably during World War II, the Suez Crisis, and most recently throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The rise of Egypt’s charismatic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, for example, and his ability to mobilise Arab nationalism through the powerful Sawt al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) radio program brought Britain into conflict with Egypt as an emerging regional power.
Critical reporting on the Suez policy – the invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France in 1956 – led to calls by then-British Prime Minister Anthony Eden to bring the BBC under direct government control to win a propaganda war at home and abroad.
Pressure was also applied on broadcasters and press at the highest levels in Britain by Eden and his press secretary William Clark.
Despite some concessions, such as platforming pro-Suez policy voices on the BBC Home Service’s 'Home and Abroad' program, the BBC has framed its stance during the Suez Crisis as a victory for its independence.
It, and other broadcasters, largely ignored the 14-day rule during the Suez Crisis, a previously agreed convention by the BBC not to report on any matter that was to be debated in parliament for two weeks.
The BBC’s Light Service radio program entitled Special Survey on the Suez Canal Crisis also included a pre-recorded excerpt from an Egyptian pro-Nasser military officer Major Salah Salem.
"Unable to fully control the BBC's output, the British government established other radio channels in the region which could be used for direct propaganda"
Despite the BBC’s partial resistance to government intervention during the Suez Crisis, BBC Arabic Radio had irked the government on several other occasions.
In its inaugural news bulletin in 1938, for example, BBC Arabic Radio reported: “Another Arab of Palestine was executed by hanging at Acre this morning by order of a [British] military court. He was arrested during recent riots in the Hebron mountains and was found to possess a rifle and ammunition.”
Furious at the broadcast, the head of the Foreign Office’s news department Rex Leeper asked, “Is the BBC to broadcast to the Empire the execution of every Arab in Palestine?”
Unable to fully control the BBC’s output, the British government established other radio channels in the region which could be used for direct propaganda. For example, Sharq-el-Adna was established in Palestine in 1941 to preserve British interests in the region.
The radio station’s ownership by the British government was kept secret until 1956 when it was renamed Voice of Britain and had by that time moved to Cyprus. Unsatisfied with the propagandist power and its influence over Arab public opinion, it was handed over to the BBC in 1957 by the British government.
'This is London'
Despite its sometimes ambiguous role politically, BBC Arabic Radio has been popular in the region and among the Arab diaspora. Indeed, on hearing of BBC Arabic Radio’s closure, many have shared feelings of nostalgia.
Osha Mahmoud said, "I grew up listening to my dad presenting on BBC Arabic, and now here he is presenting the final hour of BBC Arabic Radio before it's closed and taken off the air. It really is the end of an era. Tune in to hear "هنا لندن" one last time." Others shared their memories of using BBC Arabic Radio to learn the language.
As the iconic phrase “Huna London, This is London” aired for the last time on 27 January 2023, listeners flocked to Twitter to discuss the end of an era.
Among them was Doaa Farid, an award-winning producer and former BBC Arabic employee, who explained, "I looked back at the service’s precious archives while reading posts on social media from thousands of users who were deeply shocked to hear the news, stating that their childhood memories are associated with the service".
The BBC and BBC Arabic have also had an influence on other broadcast media in the Middle East. One of the most influential Arab and international media platforms, Al Jazeera, was founded shortly after BBC Arabic TV stopped broadcasting in 1996.
Created by the then-Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Al Jazeera became a voice for the Arab world and a hugely successful media brand of the global south.
BBC Arabic TV had been launched in 1994 following an agreement between Saudi-owned Orbit Media and BBC Arabic but quickly faced limits on its editorial freedom.
The channel was shut down two years later after numerous clashes over output, notably the airing of a program regarding Saudi King Fahd's hospitalisation.
"A product of Britain's colonial era, the closure of BBC Arabic Radio has been interpreted by some as a further decline in British influence and power in the Middle East, a region once central to its empire"
As a result, multiple experienced former BBC Arabic TV staff were recruited to join Al Jazeera to launch the new channel in Qatar.
A product of Britain’s colonial era, the closure of BBC Arabic Radio has been interpreted by some as a further decline in British influence and power in the Middle East, a region once central to its empire.
For others, given the post-Brexit branding of ‘Global Britain’, this is precisely the moment to preserve a platform such as the BBC World Service as the UK seeks to remain relevant and influential through soft power.
Hamdullah Baycar is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, focusing on the national identity of the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf.
Follow him on Twitter: @HamdullahBaycar