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English newspapers in the United Arab Emirates: Navigating the crowded market

Issue 7, Winter 2009

By Peyman Pejman

Courtesy of Flickr user toyohara under a Creative Commons license

Courtesy of Flickr user toyohara under a Creative Commons license

Dubai’s rapid growth has made the United Arab Emirates a global household name in the space of a few short years.  A recent New York Times story referring to the country’s star emirate, perhaps put it best: "You name it, Dubai has it.  Or if it doesn’t have it, it’s building it.  Or if it’s not building it, it's dredging up an island to put it on.”[1]  Dubai’s growth has helped turn the United Arab Emirates, a country not yet forty years old, into a symbol of economic development for the rest of the region.  But as the country debates its place in the global financial and political arena, there is another field in which the UAE will be tested, sooner rather than later: media development.  As the country finds itself more tied to the global economy, English daily newspapers are realizing that the old system of uncritically reporting news in deference to political and business elites is no longer adequate if the papers want to be considered a player in the media market.  They are realizing that timid reporting can no longer be washed off with a sea of advertising revenue and that good reporting is becoming more and more essential for earning respectability.

This paper is based on first-hand interviews conducted with editors of all six daily English newspapers in the United Arab Emirates.[2]  As such, it is the most comprehensive research carried out on the topic to date.  In addition, the paper relies on random but continuous analysis of the content of each of the six dailies over a six-month period between July 2007 and January 2008.  The exception was The National, which is new to the market and thus the content analysis on it was carried out for a period of two months.  The analysis included examining the quantity of various types of news (national, regional, and international), the news selection process (particularly which type of news received more prominent placement), quality of reporting and writing, and editing standards.  The findings were then judged against central concepts of the role of the press, including news values, censorship, self-censorship, and ability to set the news agenda.

The significance of the paper lies in two areas.  First, it constitutes the most comprehensive, first-hand data on the English press in the United Arab Emirates.  Second, the UAE, particularly the emirate of Dubai, has been heralded not just for its economic development but for creating a “free environment” in the Middle East.  Certainly Dubai has received – and seems to have happily accepted – the label of being the most liberal and moderate city in the Middle East.  As such, the degree to which the press develops in the country is an issue that is being keenly watched by many in the region.  Among other questions, media watchers will examine the press in the UAE to analyze the relations between economic development and press development, relationship between press freedom and political freedom (or lack thereof), and the possible relationships between advertising and the level of probing questions newspaper reporters and their editors will ask of the country’s rulers and business moguls.

Media environment

The first Emirati newspaper was neither professional nor money-making.  It came about the same way journalism was historically built around the world: as a vocation and hobby rather than a business.  In the early 1920s, Musabbah Bin Obeid Al Dhahiri, a shopkeeper in the city of Al Ain produced first newspaper in what is today the UAE.  Al-Dhahiri wrote al-Nakhy – named after a popular food item back then – in a coffee shop in the city during the day and reproduced it on cardboards when he returned home at night.  There was no printing press or sophisticated equipment.  Each morning, he would stick the cardboards on his shop window to encourage people to read previous day’s news.  In an interview with a local paper, Al Dhahiri said he first started his journalistic hobby by writing compliments to his customers on the paper in which he wrapped al-Nakhy.[3]  He then started inquiring about their families and relatives and started producing his paper which also included news about highway robberies, births, marriages, and social occasions.  But the main news item always included the activities of the ruler at the time, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the grandfather of the UAE’s founder.  Political news also focused on the activities of prominent tribes during this period.[4]

In the early 1960s, there were still no locally-produced newspapers in today’s UAE, mainly because of illiteracy and lack of a market in which to sell them.  In 1967, before the UAE gained its independence, an Indian expatriate, Kawas Motivala, published the country’s first English bulletin, The Recorder.  Mechanically reproduced on an office copier, the paper published three or four times a week, focused on advertising and merchant news.  If trade and commerce were the preeminent factors in introducing foreign press to the UAE, its solidification and consolidation was owed to nationalism and the need for social development.  Comprised of many tribes, the founders of today’s UAE quickly seized on the opportunity and used the press to promote nationalistic feelings.[5]

Today, there are six English-language newspapers in the UAE. In order of establishment, they are:

  • Khaleej Times
  • Gulf News
  • Emirates Business 24/7
  • 7Days
  • Gulf Today
  • The National

The longest running English newspaper in the UAE is the Khaleej Times, established in 1978.  The Galadari Printing and Publishing Company was the largest shareholder in the paper until the summer of 2008 when the government of Dubai, which had a stake in the company, raised its ownership, took over management and appointed a new editor-in-chief.  The paper employs 180 employees, only one of whom is Emirati.  The overwhelming majority of staff are Indian and Pakistani, with the former having a slight numerical edge.  Khaleej Times and its daily tabloid City Times are the company's only publications.[6]

Gulf News, established in 1979, is a privately-owned newspaper backed by three Emirati families with extensive business and government connections.  According to information provided to me by Gulf News, the newspaper has an editorial department of about 280 staff from nearly 30 nationalities, though only about eight are Emiratis.  In addition to Gulf News, the Al Nisr Company publishes a myriad of magazines.[7]

The third oldest daily English newspaper in the UAE is Gulf Today which started in 1996.  It is owned by a family in the emirate of Sharjah next to Dubai.  The Dar Al Khaleej (no relations with Khaleej Times) publishes five Arabic newspapers and magazines, in addition to Gulf Today.  The paper has about 70 editorial staff, about 40 of whom are Indian and the rest come from half a dozen countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Bangladesh and Uganda.[8]

The next paper to publish as an English daily was the now-defunct Emirates Today, the predecessor of today's Emirates Business 24/7.  Emirates Today came to the market in 2004, published by the Arab Media Group (AMG), a semi-governmental media conglomerate.  AMG owns a handful of Arabic and English print and broadcast stations, including MTV Arabia.  Staff of Emirates Today was turned over to Emirates Business 24/7 when the former folded last December.  The paper has about 75 editorial staff of about fifteen nationalities.[9]

Later in 2004, UAE readers were introduced to 7Days, a tabloid published in the style of Metro in Europe and North America.  Its editorial staff includes about 20 members from countries such as Iraq, the Palestinian territories, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the Philippines.[10]

The National is the newest, and arguably the best, newspaper in the UAE which debuted in April 2008.  Financed by the government of Abu Dhabi, the paper employs around 300 full-time staff, about 80 percent of whom were hired and brought into the UAE from Western countries.  It employs few Emiratis.[11]

The editors of the Gulf News and Khaleej Times claimed circulations of about 110,000 and 70,000 respectively.  The National’s circulation is 60,000-90,000 while Emirates Business 24/7 sells about 30,000 copies each day, the same circulation enjoyed by the tabloid 7Days.  Gulf Today ranks last with about 4,000 paid subscriptions.  Altogether, English-language papers in the UAE sell about 320,000 copies daily, which is about eight percent penetration in the country’s estimated 4.5 million residents. 

Given the UAE’s small population and low newspaper penetration rate, papers are under constant pressure to increase their circulation and boost advertising revenue.  Newspaper circulation has been a controversial issue in the UAE for the past few years, given its impact on the advertising rates newspapers can charge.  The Gulf News and Khaleej Times had a public row on their front pages in the early 2000s, each accusing the other of lying about its circulation.  The dynamics of a crowded English newspaper market makes it more attractive for newspapers to run business-friendly stories in the hope of preserving and growing advertising revenue.  Another tool in the hands of editors and publishers to help increase circulation is changing design and style of the paper.  All editors interviewed said they pay particular attention to layout and graphic design.  Gulf News and Khaleej Times, in particular, have been engaged in a heated design competition, the latter having changed its format twice in the past three years, once after Gulf News changed its own and again in early 2008 when The National appeared on the market.

The imperative to boost advertising revenue has a major effect on content.  Martin Newland, editor of The National, argues that one major problem with the quality of journalism in the UAE is that content is held hostage to fear of losing advertising revenue.  “I think newspapers here do not seem to be vehicles for content against which advertisers would want to put their content.  That is part of what I think – not what the government has told me – should be the role of The National, that we establish first that you would want to advertise with us because you want to be associated with the content not the other way around.  That is a very important issue.  Newspapers have to be born from a dream, from a transformative desire, a mission,” he told me.  I asked him how he, as an editor of a paper that expects (and is expected) to make profit, plans to balance the need for advertising and not being beholden to advertisers in his content and quality of reporting and types of questions his reporters would ask.  “If you are good, if they cannot do without being associated with your project, then you should be confident that those rows would be overcome.  You just have to have nerve.”  Newland says, contrary to public perception that his paper has an unlimited budget, and money is not an object, “We always built the paper around 30 percent advertising [revenue] and we run 25-30 percent advertising.  Do we have to make money?  Oh, yes.  This is government money and these guys expect a return.  They drive a hard bargain.  They are not spraying us with cash.”[12]  Deriving 30% of revenue from advertising, The National is on the low end of the spectrum, with other papers in the market depending on ads for up to 60% of revenue, thus making them much more susceptible to pressure from advertisers. 

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[1]  36 Hours in Dubai.” New York Times. Danielle Pergament, 6, April, 2008.

[2] For the interviews, I designed a series of research questions and emailed them to the editors in each of the newspapers. The emails were followed by at least one, sometimes two, personal interviews. The average length of the recorded interviews was 45 minutes each. In some cases, after transcribing the tapes, follow-up questions were emailed and responses incorporated into the transcript.

[3] Al-Majaida, Jamal, The press and social change in the United Arab Emirates:1971-1991 (Abu Dhabi, Zayed Center for Coordination & Follow-Up, 2002).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kamalipour, Yahya R and Mowlana, Hamid, Mass media in the Middle East: A Comprehensive Handbook,(Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, 1994) 296. 

[6] Parker, Neville. Winter, 2008. Personal interview with the author.

[7] Matthew, Francis. Fall, 2007. Personal interview with the author.

[8] Bakht, Shaadab. Fall, 2007. Personal interview with the author.

[9] Haine, Alice. Fall, 2007. Personal interview with the author

[10] Ali, Khaled. Fall, 2007. Personal interview with the author.

[11] Newland, Martin. Winter, 2008. Interview with the author.

[12] Ibid.  

[13] Quoted in Ayalon, Ami,The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History (New York & Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1995), 109.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. p 127.  

[16] Al-Kassim, Faisal, Crossfire: The Arab version. Freedom of the press in the Arab world, (The Harvard International Journal of Press 4, 1999) 93-93.

[17] Dajani, Nabil, An Analysis of the press in four Arab countries: The Vigilant press: a collection of case studies (UNESCO, 1989).

[18] Newland, Martin. 2008. Interview with the author.

[19] Matthew, Francis. 2007. Personal interview with the author.

[20] Ayish, Muhammed, Political Communication on Arab world television: Evolving patters (Political Communication, 2002) 19: 137-154.  

[21] Parker, Neville. 2008. Personal interview with the author.

[22] A recent report on Youth in the MENA region has more information on the youth population bulge in the UAE and elsewhere.  See “Special Report:  Youth in the Middle East and North Africa,” Financial Times, 2 June, 2008.  

[23] Mellor, Noha, The making of Arab news (US, Rowan & Littlefield Publishing, 2005) 81. 

[24] Ibid.  

[25] Newland, Martin. 2008. Interview with the author.

[26] Khazen, Jihad, Censorship and state control in the press in the Arab world (The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 1999) 87-92.

[27]Arab Satellite Broadcasting Charter, Arab Media & Society, 2008.

[28] On the issue of jail terms for journalists, the government often sends mixed signals.  In late 2007, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum issued a decree banning jail sentences for journalists.  It was, however, unclear whether he issued this order in his capacity as Ruler of Dubai of as Prime Minister of the UAE.  Recent reports have suggested that a new press law, which incorporates this ruling into national law is imminent.  But for now, substantial ambiguity remains over exactly where the limits of press freedom lie and the potential sanctions for their violation.  

[29] Pintak, Lawrence The role of mass-media as watch-dogs, agenda-setter and gate-keepers in Arab States (Harvard Kennedy School, May 2008) 6. 

[30] Rugh, William, Arab mass media: Newspapers, radio, and television in Arab politics (Westport, Praeger, 2004) 17.

[31] Pintak, Lawrence, The role of mass-media as watch-dogs, agenda-setter and gate-keepers in Arab States (Harvard Kennedy School, May 2008) 1. 

[32] Franklin, Bob; Hamer, Martin; Hanna, Mark; Kinsey, Marie; Richardson, John E. Key concepts in journalism studies (US, UK, India; Sage Publications, 2005) 12 .

[33] Protess, David L and McCombs, Maxwell, Agenda setting: Readings on Media, Public Opinion, and Policymaking (NJ, London; Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1991) 2.

[34] Pintak, Lawrence, The role of mass-media as watch-dogs, agenda-setter and gate-keepers in Arab States (Harvard Kennedy School, May 2008) p 4.

[35] Newland, Martin. 2008. Interview with the author.