The Murdoch of the Middle East
Othman Al-Omeir, Saudi journalist and editor
Othman Al-Omeir is a Saudi journalist and editor, who has revolutionized the role of media in the Middle East. This media mogul is not only known for his professional accomplishments, he is also a vocal liberal in an otherwise conservative country.
Born in 1950 in Riyadh, Al-Omeir pursued his education at the University of Medina. He later began his career in journalism as a junior sports correspondent for a Saudi newspaper. He quickly established a name for himself and became managing editor and London correspondent for Al-Jazeera newspaper in Riyadh. Among his many accomplishments, Al-Omeir has been editor in chief of Al-Yawm newspaper, editor in chief of Al-Majalla, and a member of the board of directors for Al-Jazeera newspaper in Saudi Arabia.
During his long career in journalism he interviewed many world leaders exclusively including President George Bush Senior, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister John Major, Chancellor Helmot Kohl, President Jacque Chirak, King Fahad, President Husni Mubarak, King Hassan II, President Zainulabideen Bin Ali, President Rafsanjani, President Gorbachev and many more.
Al-Omeir’s business savvy has allowed him to undertake various publishing ventures. He set up a UK-based media company, OR Media Limited, in partnership with Abdulrahman Al-Rashed to produce TV programs for Middle East, British and American stations. He also launched Elaph Publishing Limited in the UK and its associated company in Saudi Arabia, which quickly became the leading Arabic news portal. Mr. Omeir is currently undertaking plans to publish Elaph online as a printed newspaper throughout the world. In addition, Mr. Omeir acquired the Maroc Soir publishing house, the leading newspaper publisher in Casablanca Morocco, which publishes Le Matin, a daily newspaper in French, Al-Sahara Al-Maghribia, a daily newspaper in Arabic, moroccotimes.com, an English language news web site, and La Manana, a weekly Spanish language newspaper.
Al-Omeir’s many accomplishments have been recognized extensively. He is currently a member of the Royal Academy in Morocco, and in 2006 he was awarded Media Man of the Year by the Arab Media Forum in Dubai.
The Majalla : As the former editor in chief of The Majalla, how do you remember the magazine? How has it evolved?
It was a golden time for me because Al-Majalla was one of the main Arab magazines. It was a golden age for the Arab media, for the newspapers.
At that time there were few serious programs on television, and there was no Internet. Magazines were one of the big resources people relied on for information. We had many intellectual and distinguished writers, like Tayeb Saleh, Buland Al-Haidari, among others.
I was very serious about my position as editor in chief and was passionate about my job. I think this is partly why the magazine was successful.
Q: You are well known in Arab media, but you are a divisive figure. Some have described you as more inclined towards PR than journalism. How do you see your role in the media?
I don’t see anything wrong with having good public relations skills and being a “good media man.” The only time this becomes a problem is when the public relations becomes more important than the journalism. Otherwise, I believe that if you have good tactics and good luck you will be successful; the press will come behind you.
People who accuse me of focusing more on public relations don’t know how to do public relations themselves. There are many decent and bright people who have failed because they did not have good public relation skills.
Q: Although Alsharq Alwasat enjoyed great success under your leadership, others like, Nizamuddin and Jihad el-Khazen, Claim to be responsible for its success. How would you respond to this?
Asharq Alawsat was founded by two brothers: Hisham and Mohammad Hafez. They directed and managed the paper for a very long time. The first editor in chief was Jihad El-Khazen. Nizamuddin was the third editor in chief, and when he left the paper, the publication was only 12 pages long.
Q: Is it true that you had a difficult relationship with the former publishers of Asharq Alawsat and Al-Majalla—Hisham and Mohammed Hafez?
In any job you have to expect some things to run smoothly and others to run with more difficulties. The Hafez brothers are very good journalists, no one can deny this, but they come from different schools, different backgrounds. This is probably why I had a difficult time working with them, but I enjoyed it.
Q: Elaph’s website has been banned in Saudi Arabia. Why do you believe this has occurred?
We are, I believe, a liberal newspaper, open to a wide range of ideas. It is banned in Saudi Arabia now but the ban could be removed in the future. I don’t know because I don’t belong to the Saudi Arabian government. The banning of the newspaper was because some elements in Saudi Arabia were not happy with Elaph’s content, and they worked to harm Elaph but they failed.
Q: You once declared that printed press had died, and that the future of journalism was online. But many are still printing, and you invested in a printed newspaper in Morocco. Can you explain your theory?
Well, Morocco needs that newspaper. In America you wouldn’t need it. It depends on the public’s demand.
Q: Do you think that charging for online content is a trend that will become more popular? Will it be successful?
We have to wait and see. The problem is that now the free content is everywhere. Success will depend on what you invent that will interest people and “move their pockets.” I think it’s very difficult to say in advance that it will definitely be successful, but I hope it will be.
Q: Ahmed Muleifi accused you of receiving 18 million pounds from the Kuwaiti prime minister to publish an article supporting the government and delegitimizing the opposition. Is this true?
First of all, the man who accused me recanted his accusation. But it’s funny because you can’t really transfer 18 million pounds and you can’t transport it either. So I just wonder, if it’s still in Kuwait I would like to take it (laughs).
Q: Iraqis also accused you of receiving money from Saddam Hussein. Can you explain your relationship with Saddam?
No, on the contrary, I am the one who has told people to return money that Saddam Hussein has given to them. The fact is, I went to see Saddam Hussein, and I met him. He did normally give people who interviewed him $100,000 as a gift. When I went there, they had to have a meeting about what to do with my gift since they knew I wouldn’t accept it. They called Saddam Hussein himself, and he said OK just give him pictures of us together.
Q: King Hassan II asked you to write the introduction to his biography. How did a Saudi journalist become friendly with the king of Morocco?
Because the king loved him (laughs). I enjoyed his company and he enjoyed my company. At the time I was younger, and he believed in encouraging young journalists. He was a wise man, not an ordinary one. We had a very fruitful relationship. He chose me because I was one of the journalists who knew him first, and he knew that I loved Morocco, and Morocco’s culture.
Q: Is that part of the reason why you have such a close relationship with Morocco?
I spent time in Morocco before I met him, and then I started to get to know Moroccan society and its decision makers. It is really a fantastic country, and it has a bright future.
Q: What do the following names mean to you?
Turki Al-Sudari, editor in chief of Riyadh newspaper I worked with him in my youth; he is a very good journalist. I like him; he’s a fighter.
Khaled El-Malik, editor of Al-Jazeera newspaper I also worked with him for many years. He is very determined and always works very hard.
Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Labor He is a great man—the only great man in Saudi Arabia.
Abdul Rahman Rashid, managing director of Al-Arabiya He is a friend and a colleague. I think he is an accomplished writer, one of the best in the Arab world. And he is very successful in his job as the managing director of Al-Arabiya.
Q: What do you love in life and what do you hate in life?
I hate death; I love everything of life. Life is beautiful, and there are many elements that you can fill your life with. I don’t like hateful people, or people with gloomy ideas. Otherwise, I like everything. Life is beautiful as long as we can live with it.
Q: Your father was a Qutab teacher for a mosque in Azulfi, what led you to become a modern secular editor?
This is very common, it happens to everyone. You can come from a family and be very different from them. You cannot really decide who you want to be, and your family cannot decide for you. I was very lucky because I came from an educated family, I worked very hard, and I was in a very good environment to learn more and change my ideas at any time.
Q: Can we speak of the Saudi brand of liberalism? You have been described in Saudi Arabia as a secular liberal. Do you see yourself that way?
Well, it is very difficult to say to an Arab that they are liberal and secular. Liberalism has to have a specific meaning. I don’t believe we have many liberals in the Arab world. When you are describing a liberal they have to be very open minded about religion, culture; and I don’t think most Arab intellectuals are clean of racism. When you hate Jews you are not liberal. When you hate the West and you believe they are your enemy you are not liberal.
I am trying to be a liberal. Five years ago calling yourself a liberal might have had a negative connotation, but more people are accepting that label. However, I don’t think that liberalism exists in Saudi Arabia. How can you call yourself a liberal if you don’t support someone in your family changing their religion, or you don’t want someone in your family to marry a foreigner? That is not liberalism. Liberalism is a book and you have to follow it.
Q: How do you assess the intellectual and political debate in Saudi Arabia?
I think it is very promising. I would be very happy to continue seeing it evolve. Importantly, the debate is always peaceful and it always comes to some solution. This is a very healthy way of debating in any society.
Q: To what extent has the media participated in that debate?
The media has played a very good role on the side of what you call liberal. They try to bring up all of the issues and follow many cases. I have always believed that you cannot change societies by force, maybe you could in the 17 and 18 centuries, but not in the 21 century. The only factor that can do this now is the flow of information: media, the Internet, Google, to name a few. This is my hope, that nations, the Saudi nation and others, open their mind to this information, because it will change them.
Q: Has anything been done to change regulations on the press in Saudi Arabia, especially censorship?
Now the regulation in Saudi Arabia has changed; it is not bad. They are opening the air space for radio, and we hope they will grant licenses to more newspapers and publications.
Q: What do you make of the Saudi Association of Journalists?
I don’t believe in any associations. I am not really good with any party, unless this organization is going to concentrate on their own business and the affairs of its members, like health or their members’ future.
Q: What are your memories of Prince Ahmed Bin Salman?
He was a very outstanding person; he had great ideas, and was supportive of editorials and journalists. He looks tough, but in reality he was very accepting of others. We have also Faisal now, who is doing a very good job with the company as well. I think they match each other.
Q: What does King Abdullah mean to you?
I think he’s a very good reformer. He surprised everybody. He changed the history of the region. I believe he did very well in the last five years.
Because of his ideas, he changed the attitude of the government toward the media, and other ideas. He tried to change women’s position. He has opened the door in Saudi Arabia, and it is not an easy door to open.
This interview was conducted by Paula Mejia