Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Two Unique Readers | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Closeup of Asharq Al-Awsat newspapers. (James Hanna/Asharq Al-Awsat)

One could say that Asharq Al-Awsat, since its initial publication on July 4, 1978, until today, represents a unique publication in the world of media, whether we are talking about print media or television. Perhaps the secret of the newspaper’s continuing excellence is its innovation, gravitas, and what it represents in terms of economic, political, and media significance.

It is important to note that this newspaper receives attention from senior regional politicians and leaders, particularly as it allows them not just to follow the news in their own countries, but also see what is happening in their neighboring countries as well. This is accompanied by a sense of jealousy from some figures when they see the newspaper focusing on this king or that president, giving rise to feelings of reproach, or competition. I can say that I have personally encountered a range of positions from a number of Arab leaders towards Asharq Al-Awsat as “the leading Arab international newspaper,” but let us focus here on two examples, each with their own unique presence and excellence.

In this context, I can say that Asharq Al-Awsat’s biggest fan, since the newspaper’s first publication, has been none other than Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. When the newspaper was first published, Prince Salman was Emir of Riyadh Region, and like everybody else, the Emir closely monitored what was being published every day. However, the Crown Prince was distinct from other Asharq Al-Awsat readers in terms of the accuracy of his observation and reflection, not to mention the manner in which he expressed his frank and articulate opinions, the result of long-experience with journalism and journalists. Prince Salman spent his early youth widely following and monitoring the press, and his friendship with journalists extended from the Red Sea to the Gulf. Since turning twenty-five, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz has been known to correspond with Egyptian writer Ihsan Abdel Quddous, in addition to Orientalist Muhammad Asad, not to mention [Egyptian journalist] Mustafa Amin, [Lebanese journalist] Kamel Mrowa, [Egyptian journalist] Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, and [Lebanese journalist] Salim Lawzi.

I recall on one occasion we announced that we would be updating the newspaper’s form and content. Following this announcement, we received a telephone call from Prince Salman in which he proposed the idea of publishing news summaries’ on the front page, with the rest of the article published in full inside. This was a new idea introduced by Asharq Al-Awsat to the Arab press and which was subsequently taken up by other newspapers. On another occasion, he uncovered a discrepancy in the text of a poem by Ghazi Al-Gosaibi between the Saudi edition of the newspaper and the international edition!

Crown Prince Salman possesses a deep and analytical mind, and is a strong believer in professionalism. He believes that mistakes are not permissible, and even if a mistake were to be made, it must never be repeated. He is always very direct, and whenever we published something that was heavily criticized, he would say that you have a voluntary advisor, so why don’t you seek his advice?

Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz is also keen on encouraging initiatives and following up on these. On a more personal level, he has always stood by me. One of the most prominent examples of this was when late King Hassan II of Morocco sent his intelligence chief to protest against articles being published by Asharq Al-Awsat at the time. Prince Salman hastened to intercede, paving the way for a relationship that subsequently blossomed and bloomed. I will never forget his efforts to defend the newspaper, and solve the problems that sometime arose with officials.

The truth is that Prince Salman does not limit his relationship to Asharq Al-Awsat alone, or to any single group of newspapers. Rather, his mornings and evenings are filled with communications with journalists from across the region; noting their efforts, praising their initiative, and solving their problems. It is rare to find a journalist or writer—at least among those that I know—who does not have a special story or anecdote involving Crown Prince Salman, and the details of these could fill pages and pages. Until this moment, the active role played by the Crown Prince in the development of the Saudi and Arab media over the past decades has yet to be revealed.

“Explain the problem, I have read the law and I excel at dealing with such issues.” This is what HM King Hassan II told me, along with my colleague Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, when I found myself in trouble with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. This resulted in an Egyptian court serving me with a two year prison sentence. This case was subsequently resolved by Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. I agreed to tell the details and ramifications of my case to the great man, and as he listened, I did not consider him a king but a lawyer.

This sums up Hassan II. He was dazzling, known for his vast intellect, good deeds, historic vitality, and humanity. He was one of Asharq Al-Awsat’s most loyal readers, reading the newspaper from cover to cover. King Hassan II often called himself, or commissioned someone to call on his behalf, to make a useful observation or suggestion regarding what was published in the newspaper. I recall once that he asked me: Why do you use the term dawl al-tawq (countries surrounding Israel), which is a term [invented by Nasser] that was much in use at the time? I responded, “Why do you ask, your majesty?” He answered: “The word tawq [in Arabic, literally meaning collar] should only be used in reference to a dog.”

During the Gulf war, this unique man in the history of the region and the world, attempted with ability and skill to reconcile the emotionalism of the Moroccan people towards Saddam Hussein and the interests of the country. The Moroccan people at the time had been taken in by the slogans of Saddam, and this form of deception is something that is happening today, as if we have failed to learn anything from history. King Hassan II was able to reconcile these two, emerging with minimal losses and indeed many benefits.

Late councilor to King Hassan II, Abdelhadi Boutaleb, called me on one occasion to say that the king was shocked by the articles being published in the newspaper by Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, which were stirring up public opinion in Morocco. He observed that it would be better if the Maghreb edition of Asharq Al-Awsat did not include these articles.

I answered that Asharq Al-Awsat was having a hard time with Moroccan readers, many of whom were not reading the newspaper anymore, while it seemed as if Ghazi Al-Gosaibi’s articles were only being read by Saudi expatriates there, and this was a panacea to them, renewing their will. Boutaleb—may he rest in peace—was not angered by this refusal, and when the war ended, Ghazi Al-Gosaibi received an official invitation to Morocco where he gave poetry readings.

Hassan II was always interested with media and scientific innovation. Meetings with him were filled with deep discussions and debates. I can still recall how happy he was on the birth of a new media project, and when Al Eqtisadiah newspaper was first published, I presented him with the first edition as a gift. He hastened to request a photographer to attend, saying: “Photograph me with the newspaper as a promotion.”

May King Hassan II of Morocco rest in peace. This is the month of Asharq Al-Awsat’s birth…coinciding with the month of his passing.