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An Al Jazeera IPO?
Arab TV network is mulling an IPO, and could make it anywhere -- even in the U.S.
March 18, 2005: 3:03 PM EST
by Aaron Smith, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - If Al Jazeera shares were traded on the New York Stock Exchange, would you buy its stock?

This is not an arbitrary question. The Arab news network is planning to go public and could file an IPO this year, according to an Al Jazeera spokesman.

A group of business consultants were drafting a plan, and a decision could be made by the end of the year, said Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout, reached by phone at Doha, Qatar, where the network is headquartered.

"We have to look and see whether their recommendation would compromise our independence," said Ballout. "If that's the case, we would certainly, without any hesitation, drop the issue."

But if journalism ethics could be "safeguarded," then "perhaps we can move into the next stage," said Ballout.

The network has not selected an exchange, but there are no regulations barring Al Jazeera from going public on the New York Stock Exchange, even though its journalists were temporarily banned from the exchange in 2003.

Al Jazeera, with its 65 million viewers, is the premier news network of the Middle East, where the stock could be traded on the Doha Stock Exchange or the soon-to-be-launched United Arab Stock Exchange in Cairo.

But Ballout wouldn't specify whether the network was eyeing exchanges in the Middle East, Europe or the U.S., leaving the field wide open for speculation.

Trading places

How would the Arab network fare on the NYSE?

There are no comparable companies on the exchange, according to NYSE spokesman Ray Pellechia, so Al Jazeera's financial prospects are difficult to gauge.

But analysts focusing on the issue of bias-versus-profit said Al Jazeera might do better in Europe.

"Practically speaking, it makes little sense for Al Jazeera to list their shares in the U.S.," said Paul Kim, media analyst for Traditional Asiel Securities. "They would have a broader audience in Europe" where there is "probably less of a bias."

"Investors are profit seeking and they are almost agnostic to what the company actually does," said Kim.

However, Kim said that investor sentiment regarding the "war on terror" is strong enough that where they would probably shun Al Jazeera stock even if it proves profitable.

Al Jazeera has garnered controversy for airing terrorist videotapes, including the tape on which Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Therefore, Al Jazeera is more maligned in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, said analysts.

"I can see where some investors, for political reasons, really won't be comfortable investing in a company that has the reputation that Al Jazeera has," said Barbara Bodine, director of governance initiative at John F. Kennedy School of Government, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and Baghdad reconstruction coordinator in 2003.

But the network is also maligned by Middle Eastern governments, which has added to its popularity among viewers in the region, said Bodine.

"They've managed to irritate just about every government in the Middle East, so this idea that they're anti-American is really not supportable," said Bodine.

The neutral ground, and the ground most fertile for Al Jazeera investment, is Europe, because it would be free from regional control exacted by Middle Eastern governments and from American animosity, said Bodine.

"If I was Al Jazeera, I would want to be on the London Stock Exchange or the Frankfurt Stock Exchange," said Bodine.

But American investors who shun Al Jazeera's IPO could be missing out on a great opportunity, according to Yusuf DeLorenzo, Islamic scholar and supervisory board member for the Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes.

"[Al Jazeera] is not popular because it depicts dead American soldiers, but because it speaks without a muzzle," said DeLorenzo in an e-mail to CNN/Money. "Thus, if the IPO is a commercial success, and I suspect that it will be, it should not be interpreted as an anti-American gesture on the part of investors. On the contrary, its successes will have everything to do with the democratization of the region."  Top of page


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