The wealthy United Arab Emirate of Abu Dhabi is the home of a brave new experiment in Middle Eastern media: an English language newspaper that promises editorial independence from its royal family owners. The National published its first edition on 17 April to close scrutiny in the Arab world. On Monday, Deputy editor Hassan M. Fattah, told his former employers The New York Times that there would be no government ministers in his office telling him what to write. “Being government-owned does not equal being government-run,” he said.
Some of the paper's early issues seem to back up Fattah’s claim with reports on the city’s accommodation crisis, overcrowded schools and hospitals turning away critically ill patients. However many observers are doubtful the National will be able to maintain its independent stance in a part of the world not renowned for its press freedoms. Until September 2007, journalists who wrote critical stories in the United Arab Emirates could be jailed for defamation, and the country also recently signed on to an Arab League broadcast charter asking media not to offend governments in the region. Neighbouring Qatar-based Al Jazeera hit out at the charter as a “risk to the freedom of expression in the Arab world”.
However the charter does not yet apply to newspapers such as The National. The paper’s owners, the newly formed Abu Dhabi Media Company, is a diversified government-owned media conglomerate with interests in TV, radio, magazines and Arab language newspapers. They unveiled the newspaper in a glittering event at the Emirates Palace Hotel attended by the most important members of the Abu Dhabi royalty that rules the emirate. The chairman of Abu Dhabi Media Company Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei told the elite gathering that The National “was born out of a vision that recognises the key role that a free, professional and enlightened press plays in the national development process."
The newspaper’s first editor-in-chief is Martin Newland, formerly of London’s Daily Telegraph and Canada’s National Post. He sits at the head of 200 journalists mostly ex-Telegraph employees and also from other British and American newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker. Before the launch, Newland spoke to the Guardian of his thrill to be launching a national newspaper at a late stage in his career. “If truth be told, it is also a late stage of the career of newspapers themselves for an event of this kind to be occurring,” he said. “I cannot imagine many parts of the world where anyone would think of embarking on such a project."
But while newspapers may be in decline elsewhere, The National is at the crest of a wave of new publishing ventures in the United Arab Emirates. There are currently eight English newspapers and five major Arabic newspapers in the UAE and that number is rapidly growing. The National itself reported that the 30-year-old Khaleej Times (Dubai’s English language paper will soon announce a publishing partnership with the New Times Company’s International Herald Tribune. Meanwhile the UK based Financial Times launched a bi-weekly Middle East edition this Tuesday based in Abu Dhabi with a branch office in Dubai. These ventures follow the UAE-based Arab Media Group December 2007 launch of Emirates Business 24/7, the Middle East's first English-language daily dedicated to business and economic news.
The cause of the media explosion in this part of the gulf can be traced to the country’s exponential economic growth in real estate, government and financial sectors. These in turn have generated massive increases in advertising spend. Ad spend in the UAE increased from $869 million in 2005 to $1.3 billion in 2007, the highest in the Middle East, according to the 2007 Advertising Spend Report of Pan Arab Research Centre. Of this around two thirds went to Arabic and English newspapers.
The newspaper growth is part of a drive for Abu Dhabi (the national capital) to come out of the shadow of its flashier Dubai relative and establish itself as a cultural hub of the Middle East. Abu Dhabi's urban planners are determined not to repeat the mistakes of Dubai's unchecked growth and erosion of local heritage and instead are channelling its massive wealth into the creation of a new cultural and entertainment oasis in the desert. Abu Dhabi is set to become home to branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums while the prestigious Sorbonne university is opening a campus. The city is also getting a new opera house.
Editor Martin Newland sees a major role for The National in this cultural shift. He said he wanted the paper to “reflect society, help that society evolve and, perhaps most importantly, promote the bedrock traditions and virtues that must be preserved even in times of change.” A healthy share of the $1.3 billion ad revenues would help Newland’s cause immensely.