In principle, the UAE’s constitution guarantees a free press. However, the National Media Law, which is under revision, restricts journalists from crossing a number of so-called red lines. These include criticizing the government, the ruling families of any of the emirates, and the governments of neighboring Arab countries. And while journalists are no longer jailed for violating that law—that was changed in 2007—they can be fined. What’s more, the UAE exerts control by issuing—or revoking—licenses for newspapers to operate and by approving the appointment of editors-in-chief.
In Abu Dhabi today, it isn’t always clear precisely where the red lines are. To pursue its mandate, The National had to refuse to blindly accept what government officials said as the final (indeed, the only) word on local issues. But as the launch approached, questions still lingered about how far the paper could push its reporting. Two months before the launch, Newland issued a memo to his staff that warned them not to expect to undertake the hard-hitting investigative journalism they might have hoped to, especially when it came to the country’s most sensitive issues, like business corruption, labor conditions, or relations with other Arab countries. “Understand now that we are not here to fight for press freedom,” Newland wrote. “We are here to produce a professional, commercially viable newspaper. Press freedom is a byproduct of this. The more we zero in on templated ‘red-line’ stories at the expense of human interest and the ordinary narrative of life in the UAE, the more we look like a foreign newspaper, peering into the goldfish bowl.
“Often, the human-interest narrative is the way into a red-line story anyway,” the memo continued. “We cannot adopt the stance of the exasperated Westerner. We go at the country’s cultural pace. Do not pick small fights if there is a bigger one to be won down the road. If in doubt, ask.”
Newland has run newspapers for his share of eccentric proprietors. But none has wielded as much power or wealth as Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who is next in line to be the UAE’s president. The city-state that Sheikh Mohammed inherited is a fairly boring, ridiculously wealthy place. He is focused on transforming it into an international hub—a Singapore or New York on the Persian Gulf—so that long after the oil is gone, Abu Dhabi can still be one of the world’s great cities.
Sheikh Mohammed’s strategy is to use Abu Dhabi’s wealth to entice some of the world’s most prestigious brands to set up operations here. Ferrari is building a theme park. The Louvre is building a museum. Both the Sorbonne and New York University are building campuses. Others are coming to build ships, develop aerospace parts factories, devise renewable energy technology, and so on.
But despite all this, a persistent lack of sophistication—or the perception of it—shrouds Abu Dhabi. The mysterious governing techniques of a ruling family that still issues decrees from behind the palace gates, for instance, seem medieval. And Sheikh Mohammed knows that without international credibility, Abu Dhabi will never be taken seriously by its international partners. For Sheikh Mohammed, establishing a Western-run, top-quality newspaper is one way to show that his city-state is ready to face the same sort of media scrutiny expected in the most credible capitals of the world. It’s a sign of maturity. “It’s what the crown prince desperately needs,” says Christopher Davidson, a fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham University and author of the forthcoming Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond.
Ten days after the launch, The National got its first chance to gauge its ability to challenge the version of the truth presented by authorities in Abu Dhabi. A three-year-old boy was discovered dead after being locked in a school bus that sat in the 110-degree heat for around four hours. The school denied any responsibility and the official explanation police settled upon, that the boy died from an “illness” unrelated to the heat, seemed to back up the school’s position.