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.”[i] 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.[ii] 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.
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.[iii] 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.[iv]
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.[v]
Today, there are six English-language newspapers in the UAE. In order of establishment, they are:
- Khaleej Times
- Gulf News
- Emirates Business 24/7
- 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.[vi]
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.[vii]
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.[viii]
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.[ix]
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.[x]
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.[xi]
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.”[xii] 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.
“I’m told that … provided that I do not write about the government, or about religion, or politics, or ethics, or people in power or with influence, or the opera, of other theatres, or about anybody connected with something, I can print whatever I choose under the supervision of two or three censors,” said the Barber of Seville, mocking the situation in 18th Century Madrid.[xiii] Arab writers in the 19th and 20th Centuries often made similar observations about the state of affairs in their own countries.[xiv] Circumstances in the Middle East, and the UAE, are not as dire and desperate as Figaro’s laments would have one believe. But certain aspects of the mocking statement still ring true for contemporary press across the region.
There is an age-old perception among many in the Arab World, including the older and younger generation in the UAE – journalists included—that politics is an elevated topic, out of reach for the layman. Many have come to believe that politics is best left in the hands of “arbab ad-dawla” (masters of the state).[xv] That is not to say that newspapers have traditionally shied away from political news. What it does mean is that they have chosen to publish political news based on two distinct patterns: First is what Faisal Al-Kassim has called “receive and see-off journalism,” which reports formulaic accounts of politicians’’’ travels and meetings at the expense of aggressive political coverage.[xvi] In a 1989 study published by UNESCO, Nabil Dajani identified a useful relationship “between authorities and the news sources, and geographical proximity,” resulting in more aggressive coverage of political news farther afield from a paper’s physical base, and more deference to official sources and political lines closer to home.[xvii]
There are clear signs that daily English newspapers in the UAE are, decidedly albeit slowly, moving away from putting “officialdom” and “see-and-send-off” news on their front pages. The new-comer The National rarely prints front-page pictures of the country’s rulers in a photo-caption format. If there are such news items, they are invariably developed into full-length news articles. “We go for news. We don’t go for protocol,” Newland, told me.[xviii] The London Metro-style tabloid 7Days hardly ever prints those pictures, and doesn’t have the space or staff to develop them into bigger stories. The financial daily Emirates 24/7, by the nature of the specialty-news it covers, has seen no reason for those types of stories either. But the other three dailies, Gulf News, Gulf Today, and Khaleej Times, focus their local coverage on state visits. Gulf News editor-at-large Francis Matthew defended these coverage choices, contending that the role of journalists at Gulf News is to “report in detail on stories relevant to readers and bring stories to the page in a way that readers want to see. I emphasize the readers. Is that different from any other country? No, it should not be.”[xix] There are indications that Khaleej Times, under a new management and in an increasingly crowded market, might be shying away from the practice as well.
News items directly critical of Middle Eastern rulers are next to non-existent in the UAE press. To the degree that investigative or critical news coverage might exist, it generally conforms to the geographic proximity pattern: neighboring Gulf countries receive no probing reportage, even if news agencies have provided them. Countries farther afield in the Middle East or on other continents receive more critical coverage as distance grows, confirming Dajani’s hypothesis. A recent Sharjah University study has found that a similar trend holds in the political coverage of pan-Arab satellite television.[xx]
Journalists covering the Middle East argue that officials in the Arab world, and the UAE, are not used to the idea of being available routinely for press inquiry and there is less of a tradition in the Arab World of sharing information for the public good. Others hold that there is no market for political news in English because expatriate English speakers are generally not interested in delving into the politics of their temporary home. Neville Parker, acting editor of the Khaleej Times until late 2008, told me, “At this point in time, I don’t see any kind of in-depth political reporting being done from the UAE. In this region, I don’t see what kind of political reporting can be done. [Expatriate] people are basically here to work and have a better life. I am not sure how much they would care about politics even if we produced [political news].”[xxi]
The UAE has earned a reputation as a business hub for the region and continues to progress along that line. Naturally, this also contributes to the bias towards financial and business news at the expense of politics. It is also true that in a country with a huge youth population bulge there is more of a market for entertainment and soft news than for hard political analyses.[xxii] In population dynamics, the UAE is somewhat comparable to the rest of the Arab world and even the United States in the lack of a desire on the part of people to cope with “serious” political news. Mellor argues that western readers are more politically-minded now than in years past but are less keen to read about local politics because they enjoy unprecedented security and prosperity.[xxiii] A parallel argument about the UAE, a country that has not known serious civil strife in its short history, would not be out of order.
Government barriers and self-censorship
The relationship between authorities and news sources is more problematic in the UAE in that some top editors see their mission as to uncritically print the official version of reality. Shaadab Bakht, executive editor of Gulf Today, says he sees the role of his newspaper as merely reporting official facts, without interpretation or investigative reporting. “If the ruler’s court says this is what’s happening, that’s what we say. When there is a system in place, there is no need to be unduly critical. The media cannot be self-styled guardians. The primary role of the media is to keep not a watch but to inform.” Bakht is not alone in this style of thinking, which can easily be termed self-censorship. Self-censorship is one of the most pervasive diseases hampering Arab media in all countries, including the Gulf and the UAE. It ties handily with the concept that “lords of politics” and “masters of the state” know best and if they hide something, they are doing it in the best interest of the society.
Bakht is in the minority in openly praising governments for withholding information, but at least he is one of the few who admits it openly. Matthew of the Gulf News says if his newspaper does not hold officials to task often, it is the paper’s fault. He says his paper does not receive any government pressure not to publish in-depth and investigative reports and cites some examples of potentially embarrassing items that his paper has covered, such as rape cases. “Is there government pressure? No. If you do your work properly and report factually, there is no government pressure. There is embarrassment but not pressure … I think it is very easy to blame poor management on government pressure.” Matthew adds:
There is a role in transmitting what the government announces. When ministers make statements, that is news … Obviously, there is no participatory politics [in the UAE] so that aspect of reporting on parliamentary sessions or council reporting is not here but as [UAE Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler] Sheikh Mohammed and other officials have said, one of the functions of the press in the UAE is to question and analyze the government, particularly where the civil service has failed and to do that, you need to do good reporting to find people who have had problems.[xxiv]
Martin Newland, editor of The National, sees it differently:
You obey the country’s laws, no matter what. There are many people in the UK who thought the Contempt Laws were ludicrous, but they are the law. The law here is you don’t criticize the ruler. And culturally it is different. In the West, media personalize, put everything on one person. In the Arab culture, you don’t. It is rude, quite apart from being legal or not. You’d lose readers. So we can point to systemic government services, point to breakdowns and bad corporate performance … You won’t see great, packaged pieces [in The National] that hit an issue head on but you’d see a train of attention in our news and commentary which draws attention to systemic issues … You cannot make public figures, hate figures. There are ways of establishing accountability without going that route.[xxv]
But self-censorship is not just a political calculation; Newland, and many others have argued that the most prevalent form of self-censorship in Emirati media comes from commercial considerations. Jihad Khazen, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, admitted in a recent article that his paper is careful to not criticize Saudi Arabia, which could cost the paper tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue each day, but is less inhibited in criticizing rulers in a country such as Sudan, which has little or no advertising value to the paper.[xxvi] The same style of economic self-censorship is prevalent in Emirati English papers, which rely heavily on advertising. Whether it is the finance-focused Emirates 24/7 or the more general Gulf News, one would be hard pressed to find an article critical of big businesses in the country, many of which are directly or indirectly owned by the government. Even in the aftermath of massive stock market declines in recent years, with the markets down nearly 50% in 2008, there has been little investigation in the press into the reasons for the fall at the structural or individual company level.
Governments also bear a good deal of responsibility for the limitations of the country’s press. In February 2008, the UAE joined most states in the Arab League to pass a charter regulating satellite broadcasting that threatened with closure any satellite station that jeopardized “social peace, national unity, public order, and general property.”[xxvii] But broadcast stations are not the only ones facing restrictions. As in other countries in the region, newspapers must obtain a license to publish, a leash that can be tightened at will. Despite claims that it wants freer press in the country, the Emirati government has failed to present a new press law which many hope would do away with some of the restrictions typical of authoritarian regimes. The UAE press law of 1980, still in effect, bans any direct criticism of the country’s rulers.[xxviii] The UAE was also quick in November 2007 in closing two private Pakistani satellite channels, Geo TV and Ary One, after they initially did not cease their criticism of martial law declared by Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf. The two stations were broadcasting out of Dubai’s Media City, which the emirate has often branded as a free-enterprise press environment. In closing the two stations, the government made it clear that freedom of the press takes a back seat to the country’s foreign policy agenda. “As an entity within the UAE, Dubai Media City would also observe the broadcast principle of the country’s foreign policy and prevent the telecast of news and material that would undermine those principles,” said Amina Al Rustamani, executive director of Dubai Media City.[xxix] While not an attack on the English print press per se, these restrictions on satellite channels send an unmistakable signal to all media outlets operating in the country about where boundaries lie.
Whether restrictions specified by law or the arbitrary closure of private television stations, many western commentators would see such limitations as contradictory to the principle of free press. Rugh, however, points out, “It is also true that many stories in Arab media do not entirely measure up to the ideal that some have set for the American press, for example, of a ‘truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.”[xxx] While the credibility of some of the most respected U.S. dailies – notably The New York Times – has come under fire in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, this caveat should not obscure the need for a freer press and less prohibitive laws in the region.
In most parts of the world, newspapers have traditionally been more influential than television in shaping public opinion. That is perhaps because newspapers historically appealed to the more educated and wealthier segment of the society. But that opinion-shaping role has been rather limited in the Middle East. Some observers have even argued that before the advent of Arab satellite television, “the idea that media might drive public opinion in a direction other than that dictated by government was essentially unthinkable, much less the media would have an agenda-setting effect independent from that of those in power.” [xxxi] In fact, in many instances, it was the international press – or individuals using the Internet – that broke stories before the local press in the Middle East did. Examples range from inhumane treatment of prisoners in the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, to the plight of a Saudi woman who was raped and then lashed because she publicly complained, to the story of a French boy who was raped in the UAE by two Emirati males.
Franklin asserts that “the premise of agenda setting theory is that the way in which news media report particular issues influences and helps to shape public awareness and debate.”[xxxii] But this definition needs to be contrasted against the concept of “construction of social reality,” the idea being that while the press can try to influence people’s thinking, each individual comes with a set of personal experiences and ideas, based on a multitude of factors. [xxxiii] This difference is important. If agenda-setting is interpreted as merely informing, a more favorable judgment can be rendered on the UAE print press. But if agenda-setting is interpreted as influencing debate and analyzing the data, the judgment would be much dimmer. Until perhaps a year ago, the role of Emirati newspapers was largely limited to transmitting information with little analysis. They could have safely been criticized for not having any ambition to shape public debate on any issue, political, social or financial. There was no “cause” that any of them sponsored or advocated. Since then, some –particularly Gulf News – have published investigations on environmental and public safety topics such as replacing plastic shopping papers with paper ones, municipal waste disposition, speeding hazards and traffic issues. Yet even when the newspapers run stories about death related to speeding on UAE highways, the newspapers shy away from asking critical questions about why so many of the UAE’s radar facilities don’t work, why there are so few patrol cars on the road in such a rich country, or delving into allegations that corruption is widespread among traffic cops.
While English papers in the UAE might be dealing a bit more seriously with old or emerging social issues – not political and not much in the financial realm– but their treatment of those issues still resembles, to borrow a term from Pintak, “behavior of a lapdog and not a watchdog.”[xxxiv] But will the performance of English newspapers improve? Absolutely; it already has with the debut of The National and reorganization of the Khaleej Times. At the same time, that improvement so far has been in layout and design, not necessarily the content. The National’s editor said he had hoped the launching of his paper “would be a bomb under the journalism market” that could shake up the industry. “When I [launched] the National Post in Canada, it created a market for journalism. Suddenly journalism was valued. Suddenly journalists were valued. That did not happen here.”
As the UAE, a country not yet forty years old, continues to develop its press two issues will be crucial going forward: the norms, legal and social, that govern critical reporting, and the ability of the industry to move away from its reliance on foreign talent. For Newland, the two are interlinked:
“Journalism has a low base in this country. In order to recruit Emiratis you have to elevate journalism. At the moment, what is the incentive? Unless journalism here is made into something that serves the public interest and that is literally the Fourth Estate, as it’s designated in England, and forms one of the institutions of the country, you won’t attract nationals.”[xxxv]
Peyman Pejman is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Zayed University in Dubai. He is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East for the past two decades.