It was hard to miss: a green newspaper in a crowded news stand. I knew of the pink paper, London’s Financial Times, but a green paper was unexpected. It was the autumn of 1978 and I was on my way back to Tehran from Paris. The green intruder was Asharq Al-Awsat, a slender gazette that described itself as “the leading Arab international newspaper.”
Leafing through the paper’s few pages I tried to ascertain its identity. That, too, was a surprise. Having known the Arab press for years I knew how to recognize the provenance and the political coloring of every newspaper or magazine.
Asharq Alawsat, however, proved hard to typecast. There were two reasons for this. First, it made ample use of news items and articles from the international media, something rare in the Arab media in those days. Next, it was clear that the people who produced it came from many different Arab countries and had a range of different social and political sensibilities.
Having read the paper on the airplane I wondered how long it might last. If it were to become just another government-financed venture it would not make any ripples. But, if it wanted to fly with its own wings, where would it find the readership and the advertisers necessary?
Were the men behind this enterprise trying to do the impossible?
At that time I did not know that a decade later I would be a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat and asked to cover a number of major events and interview dozens of political and cultural figures for it across the globe.
Over the years, Asharq Al-Awsat developed into a veritable institution and, by the first decade of the new century, had become the flagship of the region’s largest private media group.
Asharq Al-Awsat had to break the classical mold for newspapers. Every newspaper starts with a defined base in a city or even part of a big city. The “green” paper saw the whole of the Middle East, a region stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, as its “city base.” With the emergence of stable Arab communities in Europe and North America, the paper’s “city base” became truly global. That fitted the spirit of the time as globalization became the revolutionary trend that transformed the concept of national or regional boundaries.
Asharq Al-Awsat also broke the traditional national and ideological rules that defined editorial boards of almost every newspaper in the world. At some point the newspaper’s editorial staff included people from more than 20 countries. Unwilling to copy the established styles of any one Arab country, it developed its own style. At times that provoked heated debate, including over the spelling of many names, not to mention the attribution of space to competing stories.
Over the past three and a half decades, Asharq Al-Awsat established itself as the region’s newspaper of record; quite an achievement by any standards.
The full story of Asharq Al-Aawsat remains to be told. But one thing is already certain: the fragile green shoot that sprouted in 1978 has grown into a self-confident oak.