War of words - Issue 111 - Magazine | Monocle

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Qatar was slapped with an embargo by its Arab neighbours last summer after being accused of sponsoring terror and cosying up to Iran. As a result the Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, was dispatched to defend his country on the world stage. Yet before he went to the United Nations and before he visited the White House, the minister first stopped in London. A week later his uae counterpart, Dr Anwar Gargash, did the same. “The crisis between the four states – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the uae and Bahrain – with Qatar is a serious one,” said Gargash, speaking at the think-tank Chatham House to the assembled Arab press corps, who shuffled in their seats as deadlines loomed. “Qatar foolishly tried to ride the tiger of jihadism.”

London has been a nexus for Arab news-gathering for 40 years. It’s where kings, princes and presidents from the Middle East go when they want the world’s ear. A question mark hangs over the clout that the UK will command once it leaves the European Union but London is a media battleground that increasingly mirrors a polarised Middle East: major networks such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera, online news sites of mysterious affiliation, broadcast, print and online outlets backed by wealthy states and individuals are all tussling with one another to be heard.

It didn’t start out this way. Something of a hub began to form in the 1970s when London offered freedom, safety and smoky pubs to Arab journalists fleeing the Lebanese civil war. “There was no international Arab media at that time,” says Eyad Abu Shakra, senior editor at Asharq Alawsat, who joined the paper months after it was first published in 1978. Asharq’s mint-green pages still adorn newsstands everywhere from Edgware Road to the Gulf and, according to Abu Shakra, remain true to the original Saudi publishers’ vision of “an Arab International Herald Tribune” aimed at both expat Arabs and globally minded readers in the Middle East.

Asharq launched in central London’s Gough Square with 10 staff journalists, many of whom were Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis who had worked in Beirut before the war. “It was the golden age of Fleet Street,” says Abu Shakra. “I was lucky enough to witness those days.” The paper pioneered “offshoring”, whereby Arab publishers would sidestep stringent media laws back home by printing in Europe. They would then send relatively unfettered news back to the region via the novel – and accident-prone – method of beaming scans of the pages by satellite to multiple printers around the world.

Today Asharq is headquartered in a business park in west London but is still published by Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a company that gets passed between members of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s family. (The current chairman, Badr bin Abdullah al-Saud, is also reportedly the buyer of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which sold at Christie’s in November for €374m.)

At the door to the newsroom, two furled Saudi flags stand guard; the paper may be offshore but Riyadh is never far away.

Hafiz Elkabbany, an Egyptian journalist who has been with the paper from the start and translated the syndicated New York Times op-eds into Arabic, says that the strength of the paper has ebbed and flowed according to each editor in chief’s readiness to run a proper pan-Arab daily, rather than a Saudi gazette.

The Gulf countries themselves have little free press to speak of. But there are no red lines in terms of what can and can’t be said in the paper today, according to Abu Shakra. In the days before we meet, Saudi’s proxy war with Iran-backed rebels in Yemen is being described as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time; a Saudi blockade of the ports prevents access for international aid groups. Could Asharq Alawsat – so closely affiliated with the House of Saud – publish an op-ed critical of Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen?

“If a foreign minister has criticisms then it should be reported,” says Abu Shakra. “We try to be as objective as we can; if you are a professional you know what’s expected of you.” After this evasive answer we’re told that the editor in chief, Ghassan Charbel, has been called to an emergency and will be late to our meeting. When he does arrive, Charbel simply doesn’t have time to talk. Nor are we allowed to join the team in the boardroom at 17.00 when the newsroom convenes to hash out the next day’s front page, watched over by clocks that tell the time in Rabat, Riyadh, Cairo, Beirut and London. When asked about circulation figures, Asharq’s editors aren’t able to provide a figure. There are evidently more red lines than the team let on. Asharq’s editorials support women drivers and the crown prince’s ambitions to revive a more moderate version of Islamic law. Yet at the same time, battle lines are drawn: op-eds vilify Qatar, denouncing it as a supporter of terror and a backer of the Iran-affiliated Houthi rebels in Yemen that Saudi is fighting.

Al Jazeera’s London bureau chief, Ahmed Ibrahim, knows this characterisation of Qatar all too well. At the height of the embargo in the summer of 2017, the Gulf blockaders demanded that the Qatari-owned TV network be shut down.

“We bring people on who are pro-Houthi, anti-Houthi,” says Ibrahim, who watched his pool of guests dry up as journalists and pundits feared a snub from other Arab media. “It’s the freelance journalists that suffer – they think those in authority will judge them because they appear on our channel.”

The network’s London studios are, naturally, in the Shard – 16 floors up the icicle-shaped skyscraper that was built with Qatari money, a monument to the Gulf’s influence on the skyline. Manning the newsdesk is correspondent Layachi Djabou, an Algerian who has lived in London for 13 years. He is joined on air for the newspaper review by a journalist from Al Quds Al Arabi, a pro-Palestinian paper headquartered in London. On the video wall behind them, Donald Trump’s face floats over reams of Arabic newsprint as the two journalists discuss the latest outrage from Washington.

Ibrahim is watching from the control room. London was supposed to be a quieter gig for him, he explains, given that he’d previously run Al Jazeera’s Syria bureau. But since the embargo he has found his team shut out of stories – not least when a group presenting itself as the political opposition to the Qatari government held a press conference in Docklands. He bemoans the “propagandist” streak that has taken hold of the Arabic news industry. Of course, Al Jazeera’s critics say the same of his channel.

London plays a vital role in this power struggle. “The media here present themselves as less politically managed by a political group or country,” says Dina Matar, senior lecturer in Arab media at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “London provides the cover for the moral responsibility that newspapers have to be impartial but they are still partisan.”

Being offshore is perhaps less essential in this climate: Al Hayat has long been regarded as the liberal Arabic read, initially founded in Beirut but reopened in London during the Lebanese civil war. The office is now in the process of moving its operation from Hammersmith to Dubai. It’ll leave behind some writers but become a Middle East paper from top to bottom.

“I knew for a while this was coming – it’s become very expensive to be in London,” says Baria Alamuddin, a columnist for Al Hayat for more than 20 years, who shadowed Yasser Arafat in the weeks after the Oslo Accords. “Being published in London, one felt a certain freedom. But in Dubai, apparently, this freedom exists.”

Though the reasons for Al Hayat’s decampment are widely cited as financial, one seasoned Arab journalist speculates that it could also be about bringing the media closer to home, where the Gulf’s powers that be can keep a closer eye on it.

But more traffic has been heading in the other direction. Both The National in Abu Dhabi and Jeddah’s Arab News have set up bureaux in London over the past year. Arab News was founded in 1975 to serve local news to English-speaking expats living in Saudi and is owned by the same company as Asharq Alawsat. London bureau chief Ben Flanagan sees nothing surprising about this parochial paper going global as another new bureau opens in Asia.

In Flanagan’s office there’s a green baseball cap emblazoned with “Make Arab News Great Again” – a bit of fun, he says, unconvinced that, as his newspaper expands its roster of journalists, a play for soft power is happening. Yet media-savvy Qatar has long been the voice of the Middle East that is beamed to the world in Arabic and in English, and it’s only natural that Saudi and the Emirates would look to curb the influence of a neighbour they say has gone rogue. Journalists in the industry will readily dismiss the notion that there’s an Arab media war in London today. But if the shoe fits...

Know your Arab media

Al Jazeera
Founded: 1996 in Doha
Opened London bureau: 1997
Owner: Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar
London staff: 10
Audience: 50 million viewers in the Arab World

Arab News
Founded: 1975 in Jeddah
Opened London bureau: 2017
London staff: 20
Owner: Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a holding of the Saudi royal family

Asharq Alawsat
Opened London HQ: 1978
London staff members: 130
Circulation: unavailable
Owner: Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a holding of the Saudi royal family

Al Quds Al Arabi
Founded: 1989 in London
Staff members: 27
Circulation: 75,000
Owner: Al-Quds Al-Arabi Publishing and Advertising, founded by Palestinian publishers

Al Hayat
Founded: 1946 in Lebanon
Opened London bureau: 1988; closed 2 January 2018
Owner: Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al Saud
Circulation: more than 200,000

Al Arab
Founded: 1977 in London
Owner: Al Arab Publishing House
London staff members: Unwilling to disclose
Circulation: Unwilling to disclose

The Arab Weekly
Opened London bureau: 2014
Owner: Al Arab Publishing House
Number of London staff members: Unwilling to disclose
Circulation: Unwilling to disclose

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