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Redefining the lines in the sand – is Saudi media more open than the UAE’s?

Journalists in Iran feel intimidated

Kipp columnist Alex Malouf says journalists in this part of the world uncover the 'what' but not the 'why'...

April 1, 2013 11:57 by

I love journalists. At their best, they can uncover the truth, explain the ‘why’ behind the ‘what,’ and shift the public’s perception. Journalists in our part of the world have numerous challenges to contend with, including self-censorship and that other kind of censorship. They don’t have an easy job, and few of us understand the pressures that journalists in the Gulf are under.

Saudi Arabia has always been the most conservative Gulf state and that epithet can also be applied to the country’s media. All of the Kingdom’s chief editors are placed in their posts by Royal appointment only and, by and large, all of the country’s newspapers are owned by the Royal Family.

This is in contrast to the UAE where many of the country’s newspapers are owned by prominent local families (for example Al-Rostamani, Al Tayer and Al Majid for Gulf News, Al Galadari and Khaleej Times). There are exceptions to this, such as the Abu Dhabi government-owned newspaper The National, and minority government shares in other papers such as the Khaleej Times.

Generally speaking, the newspaper owner base is more diverse in the UAE. And that, along with a more open environment, encourages more media debate when compared to Saudi.

Today’s media landscape in both countries would do little to justify the above. Buoyed by debate online, particularly on social media, and tentative steps to reform the country’s government, Saudi media has become bolder in its tackling of issues such as the nationalization of jobs, consumer rights, and government services. Even taboos such as land ownership have gained recent attention in both the Arabic and English media. This drive hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Kingdom’s government, and one editor (of Al-Sharq) was fired for his paper’s aggressive criticism of officials.

Turning our gaze back to the UAE, and the drive to take on topics of the day just doesn’t feel as pressing. There’s the inches devoted to the real estate market, news on Salik, and other issues which may affect the reader. But there’s less critical thinking, less of the why and more of the what. In other words, it feels as if the UAE’s media is tamer than it used to be.

This may be a shock to many, and I’m sure that there are Kipp readers out there who will vehemently disagree with my thoughts. But it’s astounding to consider that Saudi’s media scene may have become more vibrant than the UAE’s. That’s exciting for Saudi Arabia and for those who hope to see a transformation in the country’s society. But it’s also worrying for the UAE, a country that has always prided itself on being a business and social hub that thrives on connecting others to the Middle East. If the media here isn’t what it once used to be, could the UAE possibly lose its competitive edge in other areas?

A British national with Arabic roots, Alex Malouf has spent ten years in the Gulf and has lived in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Alex lost his heart to journalism years ago, but he has worked with a range of multinational companies in the technology, energy and financial sector to develop their marketing and communications approach to the region. He’s currently based in Dubai, but can often be found at Dubai International Airport flying back home to Bahrain or some other (hopefully exotic) destination.

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