Accidents happen. The unpredictable eddies of life deposit us quite by chance in unasked-for positions that we turn to our advantage or simply have to handle. Such was the case with Khaled Almaeena, erstwhile editor of the Arab News and currently the Saudi Gazette, both English-language national newspapers based in Saudi Arabia.
Almaeena is a modest, soft-spoken father of five children and a man of inflexible principle and charitable mien – described by his daughter as “a man who loves the poor” – with a barely concealed mischievous sense of humour. He has a ready smile, a weakness for cricket, and a phenomenal memory, particularly of names and dates together with a huge library of anecdotes he uses to illustrate key points.
Almaeena brought the Arab News from relative obscurity to feature large on the world media stage in the 10 years he was Editor in Chief for the first time. And to prove it was not sheer luck he did it twice.
Now, as Editor in Chief at the Saudi Gazette, he and his team are on the way to repeating the process of brand building but with a new set of challenges facing him in terms of news delivery platforms.
“With the rise of the social media, the immediate thought is that anyone can be a journalist,” he says. “That is in part true. News events can be distributed around the world in seconds, but the question arises, is that journalism?”
The speed and effectiveness of ‘citizen journalism’ has been graphically demonstrated in the recent events in Syria, Egypt and the US. Social media, blogging and citizen journalism are here to stay and are destined to be an integral part of the future of news distribution, says Almaeena. Where they can fail as news platforms, despite their immediacy, is in their one dimensionality as they consist of images and a few words that provide neither context nor analysis. “There are reflective websites that offer deeper analysis,” he admits, “but I see the trend towards short ‘sound bite’ style of web reporting as the future dominating medium.”
He feels that this does nothing to increase public knowledge and runs counter to his own deeply held conviction that a news medium is there to inform and transform, not just entertain with highlights. “Newspapers are for the people, there to inform, analyse and reflect on news. The readers are part of that process, they offer feedback and the relationship between the paper and the people can and does build opinion and values.”
He sees the future as a marriage of platforms, paper, applications, internet and social media. “Print will be here for some time, but it will have to change, become more subjective and analytical. Topical news will give way to analysis, advertorials and other formulae.”
Almaeena is a native Saudi who, from the dictates of his mercantile family who had in 1922 established businesses in the subcontinent, moved there at an early age where there was a considerable community of Arab businesses in Karachi and Bombay (now Mumbai). “We became part of the landscape there,” he observes.
He received much of his early education at Saint Patrick’s, an Irish Catholic school, in Karachi. “It was a case of spare the rod and spoil the child – they were very stern were you to speak any other language than English. But I loved the language anyway,” he recalls.
With that love of English and the intensity of the teaching, Almaeena’s natural inquisitiveness took hold and pointed him to what would become his life’s passion. “I had no idea that one day I would be the editor of a newspaper, but when I was very young and the daily newspaper was dropped at the house, I would run to be first to pick it up and read it,” he says.
Fluent in English at an early age, he admits to becoming a voracious reader, devouring the classics of the English language early on. “I loved news, and my father had hundreds of books in his house and we were a political family. We discussed everything.”
He was destined for the American University in Lebanon, but explosive events in Beirut persuaded his family that the university in Karachi was a safer choice. On graduating, he returned to Saudi Arabia at the age of 21 “simply because it was my country”. Presented with three offers of employment, he chose to work with Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia). “The airline attracted the cream of Saudi talent, all English speaking and hard working. It was unheard of for a Saudi to arrive in the famous “green building” headquarters later than 8 am or leave before 4 pm,” he says.
Almaeena regards the Saudia experience as something of a university for it was there that he encountered the work ethics of the commercial world and had practical experience of management and corporate structure. His roles in the company included progression through marketing and sales manager to media development.
It was also here that an unrecognised (at the time) augury presented itself. “I got into the habit of reading the English language newspaper, the Arab News,” he says. “I whiled away some spare time by reading the news for Radio Jeddah, for which they paid me the grand sum of 15 riyals ($4), 60 ($16) if you completed the four-hour session of the programme.”
In the companionable atmosphere of broadcasting working with intellectually agile colleagues in the “liberal and societally less restricted atmosphere” of the mid-1970s, Almaeena became increasingly drawn to news media.
In 1979, at 5 am on the final day of that year’s Haj, the infamous attack on the Ka’ba in the Grand Mosque in Makkah occurred, and the event marked a turning point in Almaeena’s life.
“I was asked by the local TV to make the first ever live broadcast of TV clippings to the outside world from Saudi Arabia. I worked with a famous Saudi TV presenter Badr Kuraim and beside him was a rather dapper man who reminded me of Hercule Poirot, Dr Hashim Abdo Hashim, a prolific writer and now Editor of Okaz. He would write down the clips in Arabic, I translated and broadcast them in English. This was frontier radio and a nine-hour day.”
The success of those days reporting the two-week siege of the Grand Mosque led to Almaeena fitting in news-reading on television with his “day job” but the seeds were sown for a new career.
MOVE INTO JOURNALISM
Almaeena started writing seriously in 1981, ironically for the Saudi Gazette, the newspaper he now heads. The then-editor, Dr Saud Islam, was a personal friend. “I went to visit him in 1982 but he was not there. King Khalid meanwhile, had called for a meeting with editors of Saudi papers and Ayad Madani, my previous boss with the airline and now with Okaz, suggested I go instead,” he recalls.
In the car en route to Taif, Almaeena met Muhammad Al Shibani, the then-Editor in Chief of the Arab News. “A week later I got a call from Al-Shibani who was about to go to London as Editor of Sharq Al Awsat and I was shocked when he asked if I would like to be the editor of the Arab News.”
Almaeena decided to take the plunge, met the legendary publisher Mohammed Hafiz – who had founded the newspaper along with his brother Hisham – and was given a blank piece of paper and asked to name his price. He started work on June 1, 1982, aged 31 and “very frightened”.
“On the first day the printer asked me what font I wanted to print in – he used the Arabic word ‘bont’ – and I had no idea what he meant. So I asked the tea-boy Abdulrahman, who was from Kerala, who knew Arabic and suggested the font, size and spacing – these were the days of hot lead presses. I gave him 100 riyals and asked him to teach me what was going on!”
The experience at Saudia paid off handsomely, and the management and marketing of the paper was relatively easy as a result.
The year 1982 was a busy time for news. The Falklands, rumbling into action since April that year, had developed into full-blown conflict with the British troops already advancing on Port Stanley, and the 40,000 British expats in the kingdom provided a ready readership.
“Being a marketeer at heart, I used to call the Falklands the Malvinas. The Brits would get upset and the faxes would pour in,” he says.
This was a foundation for interaction with the public, one of Almaeena’s tenets for a sound newspaper. “For the first time in the history of the newspaper, the British Ambassador Sir James Craig wrote a letter of criticism about ‘Malvinas’. My sales went up! They averaged 6,000 in June, yet by September, they had risen to 27,000.”
Then Israel invaded Lebanon on June 6, 1982 and there was a surfeit of news to handle. “Journalistically, I was very lucky to be there – the assassination of (Indian Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi in 1984, the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990,” he says.
During the Iraqi invasion, Almaeena took his office to Dammam to be closer to the action where he met some of the best-known names in world journalism, a true learning curve and a tremendous ‘hands on’ lesson in the way media worked. It also taught him that given the chance, Saudi reporters were as good as and often better than the international pool that turned up.
The conflict exposed Almaeena, through interviews with all of the world TV and radio channels covering the events, to a global audience, stepping his career up a notch into a truly international gear. However, the momentum of the current carrying him forward inevitably encountered some turbulence and in 1993 he lost the editorship of the newspaper.
While Almaeena was out of the country, the Arab News published a contentious article reporting the issuance of a fatwa “by the blind cleric, now a guest of the US government” to kill Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Taking editorial responsibility, though the article was not written by any member of the newspaper, Almaeena accepted dismissal. It was a severe personal blow to him, but his sterling work and honourable behaviour had been quietly noted.
“I got a call from the Hafiz brothers and together with the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman, we set up the Saudi Public Relations Company, a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group. It was the first genuine Saudi public relations company. And ironically, our first contract was with the Egyptian Tourist Board,” he recalls.
SECOND TIME AROUND
After four years or so, Almaeena was asked to return to the Arab News and he rejoined as Editor in Chief on March 1, 1998 resuming his ‘Reflections’ column every Tuesday and becoming even better known as a writer and commentator.
Then came September 11, 2001, and two years later the start of the US-Iraq war. It kept Almaeena busy and saw the Arab News change status from being a newspaper that reported other people’s news to the paper that became the quoted source.
It was a high-risk decision to have its own reporter in Iraq, yet not embedded with official military groups. But it worked. It was during this period that the UK Foreign Office, impressed by the veracity and accuracy of reports that Almaeena insisted were checked and rechecked before publishing, gave the pale green newspaper the accolade of “The Green Truth.”
Almaeena’s criticism of the US-led Iraqi invasion attracted outrage from the West and between September and December that year he received 60,000 hate emails. “We were very strong on human rights, and I was constantly attacked. My name became well known and my mother, I think, became the most abused woman in Arabia! I received any number of abusive phone calls and letters. My position was that these correspondents should not apply the concept of collective guilt to all Arabs – it was you (the West) who created this monster (Saddam Hussein), not us,” he says.
In 2011, Almaeena left the Arab News under what he terms as “an amicable arrangement” before taking up the position as Editor in Chief at the Saudi Gazette in direct competition to his former paper.
“I love the media because it can be a tool for positive change,” he says. “By accident of history I am in a position to be able to write about and highlight the plight of the poor and disadvantaged and at the same time bat for Saudi Arabia. I see no conflict in that. My function, given that there are millions of expatriates in the kingdom and in the days before internet and the fact that they largely did not have access to the rule of law, was to use the Arab News as a ray of hope. They would write letters to the editor and there were many instances where we went out of our way to intervene.
“In the late eighties and nineties we threatened Saudi sponsors of labour that if they did not amend their treatment of their employees, we would write about them, and we did,” he says. Some of the newspaper’s interventions were rather more direct.
Almaeena recounts the story of a young man who was regularly beaten by his mother-in-law. A friend of the paper, a talented thespian and mimic, called the mother-in-law and, posing as a colonel of police informed her that she should desist from her behaviour on pains of deportation should she continue. “Years on and at least once a year the husband still writes to me as a friend,” smiles Almaeena.
The Saudi Gazette has always been thought of as number two in the kingdom but Almaeena says that though the challenges are much greater “we have the team to take it to the top”.
“I have come here to compete with myself and raise the bar. We will do that by using the social aspect and, if necessary, challenge the status quo and address the new challenges of Saudi society,” he says.
Almaeena sees those challenges as the concerns of the young, what they want and what they need. “Foremost is the education system, it needs rebuilding if we want to be travellers participating on the highway of life. Unfortunately, whereas in America where people love talent, seek it out and nurture it, we don’t.”
He is deeply concerned about the lack of role models for the young and looks with a cynical eye on today’s vapid, hollow celebrity culture. “We had 11-year-old girls crying over the death of a female English pop star,” he muses, shaking his head in wonder. “When clothes designer Versace was shot dead in Florida I was at a party and a Gulf lady burst into tears. I was amazed when she said, ‘I just can’t break the news to my 12-year-old son.’ It was surreal.”
“Then there are women’s issues – that women be full partners in every aspect of society. There are also issues on education; waste and people’s rights, particularly expatriates here. There are people in the kingdom that don’t want us to progress, including the idea of women in the Shura Council. And we waste enormous amounts of food, electricity and our scarcest resource, water. We should have national campaigns against waste right from childhood.”
Both newspapers that Almaeena has edited have been in English. While acknowledging the position of Arabic as a widely spoken language and the language of the Holy Qur’an, he feels that English should be paramount in terms of teaching in Saudi schools. “If in the modern world you do not know English, you tend to be thought of as ignorant.”
He continues: “We are in a position to highlight issues, particularly the rights of expatriate workers. I say this quite openly, this country would not have progressed as far as it has without the contribution of the millions of expatriates.”
To stay in business there has to be a balance of interests – advertisers, owners and news reporting and at centre of this, Almaeena believes, is the quality of the journalism. “We have had advertisers who have threatened to pull out, but we stick to our guns. Sometimes they get upset about an article, but my reply is that we give both sides a chance to make their case. I will not allow an advertiser to sway our editorial process which is based on fairness and getting the truth out there.”
Described as a newspaperman of the “Old School” with a limited time in a changing media world by some, Almaeena sees age as “simply a number”. He fires off another anecdote to illustrate a point. “When I was 50, I played tennis against a woman of 74. She won. It was her astonishing skill and experience that beat me.”
Applying the thought to his own position, he regards survival as a matter of reinventing oneself using the experience and skills picked up in a long career.
“I would like to become a sort of elder statesman much in the manner of Lee Kwan Yew (Singapore’s first Prime Minister) or Dr Mahathir Mohammed (Malaysia’s former Prime Minister). I am actually in the process of training people to take over. I really don’t believe in retirement, but in modifying one’s role so that one ends up useful and doing what one likes.”
It is not often that Almaeena is stuck for an answer, but faced with the magic wand question – what one thing would you wish for if you had the opportunity – he pauses for some time. The answer is surprisingly gentle for a veteran newspaperman used to dealing with incredibly tough issues and with a colourful and challenging ride through his own professional life.
Yet, perhaps it was not so surprising, as his humanity has kept him on an even keel and provided with sufficient “iron in the soul” to see him through.
“I think I would wish that no child ever has tears in their eyes.” The right stuff indeed, from a true Knight of Journalism.