A Vision in the Desert

The National tries to lift journalism in Abu Dhabi
May 22, 2009

It’s 11 a.m. in mid-June and ten section editors have crowded around the table at the center of The National’s newsroom on the ground floor of a nondescript office building in Abu Dhabi for the morning lineup meeting. The hushed newsroom is sleek and informal. Reporters don’t sit in cubicles but at long rectangular tables, in front of flat-screen monitors. Six large plasma televisions hang from the ceiling, tuned to BBC World or Al-Jazeera. The air-conditioned chill betrays the Arabian summer outside, where it’s 120 degrees and a sandstorm is blanketing the city. A waiter wearing a yellow vest and a black bowtie delivers coffee and tea, and the meeting begins.

“So, what kind of trouble are we in today?” asks Martin Newland, forty-seven, The National’s editor-in-chief. He spreads his palms on the table and pauses. “About this video,” he says. One of the section editors stops doodling in her notebook and another quietly sets down his teacup. Everyone turns expectantly toward Newland.

Apart from the sandstorm, everyone in the newsroom this morning is talking about how—or even if—Newland will handle the juicy story that The Associated Press put on the wire hours before. Still frames of videotapes have emerged showing a man who appears to be Sheikh Issa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, torturing former business associates with a cattle prod and a spiked plank.

Newland furrows his brow and gazes into the distance. It’s a solid, well-sourced story about a public figure that would make it into most North American and British dailies. But for Newland, a former editor of London’s Daily Telegraph, many of the news impulses that work elsewhere just don’t apply here.

Since it launched in April 2008, The National has attempted to foster a taste in the United Arab Emirates for the kind of tough, high-quality journalism Newland is used to overseeing. And the country’s rulers have afforded him more editorial freedom to do so than they have for perhaps any other editor in the UAE. But the Sheikh Issa story singles out a member of one of the country’s ruling families for serious criticism, crossing what journalists in the UAE have always known as a red line. “We’re picking the battles we want to wage,” Hassan Fattah, Newland’s deputy, tells me later. “We want to win battles that will make the greatest change for the least cost.”

As it turns out, the Sheikh Issa story isn’t one of them. Tomorrow, at least, The National won’t mention the story. “We’ve got to be very, very careful,” Newland tells his team. Until the actual videotapes pop up online or on television, the newspaper won’t publish the allegations. “If this video appears and it’s known, then we have to do something, or we’ll be told not to.”

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The editors nod.

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” says foreign editor Michael Jabri-Pickett, “but one of our reporters has got an interview with the guy’s lawyer.”

Newland swears under his breath. “Tell the reporter to back the fuck off. No other people are to work on this story.”

In late 2007, Emirates Media Incorporated (now Abu Dhabi Media Company), a conglomerate owned by a sovereign wealth fund controlled by the rulers of Abu Dhabi, hired Newland to do what nobody had successfully done in the Middle East before: publish a high-quality, English-language, general-interest daily newspaper prominent enough to criticize the government and hold the powerful to account.

The UAE is a loose federation of seven city-states, or emirates, each run semi-autonomously by its own ruling family. And although the UAE is perhaps best known for Dubai, the flashiest emirate, the country’s real wealth is concentrated here in Abu Dhabi. Home to just under a million people, it’s one of the world’s top oil producers and the world’s richest city-state. Like many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, the UAE has never welcomed the sort of journalism that The National is doing. It’s a thirty-six-year-old absolute monarchy with a dismal record on human rights. In 2008, Reporters Without Borders ranked the UAE the sixty-ninth worst country in the world when it comes to press freedom.

So Newland and the journalists who followed him into the desert have had to work within the system rather than impose a Western way of doing journalism.

With a daily circulation of about sixty thousand, according to the Abu Dhabi Media Company (there are no audited circulation figures in the UAE), The National has targeted affluent expatriates and English-speaking Emiratis alike. It’s a huge market. Most well-to-do expatriates hail from English-speaking countries, what Newland likes to call the “anglosphere,” and an increasing number of Emiratis (who make up just 19 percent of the resident population) operate as comfortably in English as they do in Arabic.

But The National is not necessarily out to capture an advertising market—its backers don’t expect it to turn a profit for at least five years and Newland is the first to admit that it is primarily a “political and social operation.”

This is not the first time Newland has helped transform a country’s media business. I first met Newland in 2001, when he hired me as an intern at the National Post. He had left The Daily Telegraph and joined the team in Toronto as its deputy editor before the paper launched in 1998. I remember him as the day-to-day operations man who roamed the newsroom in a T-shirt and jeans, often with a cigarette tucked behind his ear. Newland personified the kind of conservative, scoop-driven British newspaper culture that Conrad Black was trying to inject into Canada’s staid media scene with the creation of the Post (this was before Black went to prison for fraud). “There was a sort of fickleness of adding things in beakers to see what happened,” Newland says. “And the mandate was there to do that. It was a lot of fun.”

In Abu Dhabi, Newland is again experimenting, but the fun is less apparent. He lies awake at night, he says, hoping that things like insensitive references to the Prophet Mohammed haven’t made their way into the paper. It’s a job of bringing things along responsibly, but not too quickly. “I won’t lie to you,” he says. “Here, it’s an enormous exercise in stewardship. Trying to find out what the political dynamic is, trying to understand what’s wanted. My worry is that we’re not going fast enough.”

After the news meeting, Hassan Fattah, the paper’s thirty-eight-year-old deputy editor, and I drive through the beige fog of the sandstorm to a beachside luxury hotel for an interview over lunch. Fattah, an Iraqi-American who grew up in California, has been working as a journalist in the Middle East since 2002. He moved to Baghdad shortly after the U.S.-led invasion and helped launch a small English-language weekly called Iraq Today. More recently, Fattah was a Dubai-based correspondent for The New York Times. When it came time for Fattah to rotate through New York, as most Times foreign correspondents must, he wasn’t ready to leave. “This is the land of opportunity,” he says.

In June 2007, a headhunter approached him about coming to work on The National. He is the only Arab among the paper’s senior editors.

Fattah and Newland assembled a core team of editors—all expatriates—and together they set about designing the newspaper in an old theater that served as the newspaper’s temporary headquarters. “We had to provide a newspaper that covers the local scene better than anyone else,” says Fattah.

As the newspaper business started to retrench in the West, Fattah and Newland found that talented journalists were willing to leave top newspapers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Telegraph. By early 2008, nearly two hundred reporters and editors had signed up to move to this small city of wide boulevards and 1980s office towers. As the journalists joined the core team in the theater, questions arose about the kind of freedom they would have to produce quality journalism. How closely would their new jobs resemble the ones they had left?

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.

Reporters on The National’s police desk suspected a cover-up. “This was just incredibly stupid. How could you even logically surmise that?” says Suleman Din, a former reporter at The Star-Ledger in Newark, who was working on The National’s police desk at the time (he has since left the paper). “Even if the boy was going to die of an illness, he shouldn’t have been locked in a bus for four hours.”

Over the next several weeks, reporters advanced the story as they would have at the North American dailies some of them used to work on. They interviewed the boy’s bereaved father; found the bus driver and interviewed him about discovering the boy’s body; questioned school administrators, who continued to say they weren’t to blame; they even wrote a story about the rise in suffocation deaths among young children left in vehicles in the UAE.

The police were furious and threatened to never speak to The National again, Din says. But after the first week, the Ministry of Education’s law department agreed to investigate the school. Less than two weeks later, the ministry fined the school and threatened to shut it down. The school had to climb down from its position, and earlier this year the UAE adopted a law that will require monitors to ride along on school buses, in part to ensure no children are left on board.

It was basic local journalism, for sure, but in the UAE it was revolutionary. And there was a feeling that it was exactly the kind of thing the paper was meant to be doing. “This is a dynamic that is wanted by the powers that be here,” says Newland, “and to a certain extent, that’s why we’ve been able to, not get away with it, but you know what I mean, push things. What we’ve done, perhaps in a responsible way, is to show that the sky doesn’t fall if you approach certain subjects. Everyone says, ‘Don’t go there.’ But then you do and no one bats an eye. It’s almost disappointing.” 

Conventional wisdom here is that nobody has attempted to shut The National down because of its heavyweight backing from the most powerful family in the UAE. But The National is a government newspaper. That means Newland must pull back from some stories, like the one about Sheikh Issa. At the same time, he has leeway to do the kinds of stories that have never been done before in the emirates. It’s a balancing act.

What has been watched most closely, perhaps, is the way The National has handled one of the UAE’s toughest issues: migrant labor. For years, the UAE has been able to build so much so quickly by luring hundreds of thousands of poor South-Asian workers with the promise of a good wage. When they arrive, they find the reality of their situation is quite different from what they were led to believe—many are forced to toil in the desert heat for long hours, they’re housed in squalid camps, and paid a fraction of the wages they were promised. The plight of these workers became an international news story in 2006, when Human Rights Watch issued a report alleging hundreds of laborers die in the UAE every year and the workers staged a series of strikes.

The Emirati media barely mentioned the strikes or the report. An op-ed in the Gulf News, one of two leading dailies, dismissed Human Rights Watch’s claims as “outrageous.”

The National hasn’t covered the labor story in a way that would satisfy, say, Human Rights Watch, but it hasn’t backed away from the story either. In May 2008, for example, Suryatapa Bhattacharya, a Canadian reporter who often covers labor issues at The National, chronicled the remarkable story of a laborer who was left for dead at the side of a Dubai highway, highlighting the way migrant workers are so often mistreated. Unconscious, the worker was taken to a government hospital, where a volunteer organization that assists migrant workers in distress found his village in India using a tailor’s label inside his shirt. Bhattacharya and a photographer followed along as the man was reunited with his family.

The paper’s approach falls somewhere between the kind of tough story a foreign correspondent might write and no coverage at all. “There are so many layers to the labor story that it’s not just one big human rights violation,” Bhattacharya says. “You can write about these things, but. . . . There’s always a ‘but.’ ”

Stories that push the boundaries are handled with extreme care. A favorite trick is to write a story about ways the government is trying to solve a problem rather than directly tackling the problem itself. For example, instead of writing about the rash of human traffickers who are kidnapping immigrant women in the UAE and then forcing them into prostitution, The National highlighted the fact that the Dubai police conducted a sting operation that shut down a notorious gang of traffickers. “The solution is always highlighted up top. You have to read down to the bottom of the story to get to the heart of the issue,” Bhattacharya says.

And while Western journalists might dismiss such a roundabout approach, Newland calls it “holistic” and explains that it is the big difference between doing journalism in the West and what is acceptable in the UAE. “The natural default mechanism of the West toward anyone with power is to sift through their rubbish,” Newland says. “Here, the culture doesn’t allow for it, especially where the ruling classes are responsible for taking these people from a life of suffering in the desert to this.

“In the West we would put a photo on the front page and say, ‘This is the bloke you’ve got to hate.’ But it’s not within the culture here to back people into corners. You don’t do it.”

In December, as Newland and his family prepared for a Christmas holiday in France, he and I grabbed a few minutes to chat in his stark white office. As he hunched in his desk chair, behind a green sign that read, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” I found it difficult to believe he was having much fun in this job. “I am incredibly tired,” he says, ignoring the ringing BlackBerry on his desk. “Ten years, six proprietors, three continents, two mass newspaper launches, and one mass newspaper edit.”

The punishing hours—and maybe the balancing act—have taken their toll. Deep bags sagged under Newland’s dark eyes and his skin matched the walls in his office. He was smartly dressed in a well-cut suit and looked fit, but he was a far cry from the weightlifting “testosterone man” they used to call him behind his back at the National Post. “Look,” he says, “it’s a different sort of job here and I suppose you could call me a bit of a whore, but you shift according to the chair. The game is still journalism. It’s still finding things out. And I won’t lie—the most compelling thing about it is playing politics. That’s the rush.” 

Andrew Mills is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.