Arab News at 42: Former editor Khaled Almaeena on the highs and lows of ‘The Green Truth’

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Khaled Almaeena was named as “Editor Emeritus” by current Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas on Nov. 10, 2016. Almaeena inaugurated the “wall of editors” during the event. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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Khaled Almaeena with the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman, former chairman of Saudi Research and Marketing Group. (Picture: Khaled Almaeena)
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Khaled Almaeena with Palestinian political leader Yasser Arafat, pictured in November 1982 in a photograph taken at around 3 a.m. in Jeddah. (Picture: Khaled Almaeena)
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Khaled Almaeena was named as “Editor Emeritus” by current Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas on Nov. 10, 2016. Almaeena inaugurated the “wall of editors” during the event. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 20 April 2017

Arab News at 42: Former editor Khaled Almaeena on the highs and lows of ‘The Green Truth’

It is not surprising that Khaled Almaeena still gets stopped in the street and asked about Arab News — even when he is abroad in places like New York or Canada.
The 62-year-old veteran Saudi journalist certainly knows the newspaper better than most. He served as its editor in chief twice — between 1982 and 1993, and again between 1998 and 2011 — and in November 2016 was given the honorary title of “editor emeritus” by current Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas.
Under Almaeena’s watch, the paper developed strong ties with its readers, sometimes fighting causes on their behalf — including cases where people were wrongly sent to jail.
“It was a 24-hour job,” the former editor said during an interview in Jeddah’s Amara Café.
“People would come to my house, saying that their sponsor hadn’t paid their money (or) the police had done this or that.”
The veteran Saudi journalist is not known for a shortage of colorful anecdotes, and they come especially freely as he talks through the significance of Arab News’ 42nd anniversary.
“It has succeeded, it has survived, it has grown,” Almaeena said of the newspaper. “Despite the many challenges that we went through, it has been able to make its mark.”
Over black coffee — the staple liquid sustenance of many a journalist — Almaeena explained how queues of people used to form outside the newspaper’s offices and those of its owners.
The daily was nicknamed “The Green Truth” — partly due to the green wash of its front page — and its top man was dubbed the “People’s Editor.”
Almaeena reels off several examples of why such a title was fitting. Many years ago, an Asian man contacted him in a desperate state.
“He said to me that if I didn’t see him that evening at 6 p.m. he would commit suicide,” Almaeena recounted.
That evening, the man told Almaeena how his mother-in-law used to beat him and take his monthly salary — making his life a misery.
“I said, ‘what do I have to do with it?’. And he said, ‘You are the Arab News, where do I go?’,” Almaeena explained.
The solution was human, helpful and somewhat mischievous — all qualities that the former editor himself exudes. Almaeena asked a friend to call the man’s mother-in-law, pretending he was from an official office, and told her to stop beating the man or face deportation.
The ruse worked, and the woman stopped the beatings. Some time later the man got a Green Card to move to the US — and Almaeena received Eid greeting messages from him for years afterward.
This was just one example of how Almaeena and Arab News helped members of the community, fighting for human causes and investigating social issues.
“People coming from outside had no access to the Saudi authorities, so whenever they had any problem they would write to us. So we became like an agony column for a lot of them,” said Almaeena.
“The role of the newspaper was to give hope to the people here. I used to get letters from prison, we got people out of prison… There were many people who would write to us.”
He still gets asked about Arab News in his native Saudi Arabia — and even when traveling abroad in the US or Canada.
“Still people write to me… Two days ago an Egyptian gentleman came to me and told me that his sponsor is giving him hell. And I said, ‘why did you come to me?’ And he said, ‘you were the guy at Arab News helping (people).’”

Blood, sweat and tears
Almaeena did not begin his career in journalism, but had a love of languages and reading from an early age.
He grew up reading English-language papers like The Times and The Guardian, and attended a strict school in Karachi, where he said “they instilled in us discipline and caring for others.”
Upon returning to Saudi Arabia, he landed a job at Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia). He started reading the Arab News, and gradually his career path moved toward journalism, starting with some radio reporting, before writing for the Saudi Gazette newspaper.
He was asked — just “by chance,” Almaeena said modestly — to become the editor in chief of Arab News in 1982, beginning the first of two stints as the newspaper’s longest-serving editor.
“It was blood, sweat and tears all the way. I remember when I joined… the circulation was about 6,000 — this was June of 1982. In September it went to 27,000.”
“Working in Arab News in those days was a passion ... all those who worked in the SRPC (Saudi Research and Publishing Company) felt they owned the company,” he said. “The founders and publishers — the legendary Hafiz brothers, Hisham and Muhammad Ali — were craftsmen. They embodied all the noble ideals and exhibited compassion and empathy. They took tough decisions and were known to encourage ideas and innovation.”
The readership was doubtless boosted by the paper’s engagement with its readers — developed, sometimes, through slightly mischievous means.
Almaeena’s early editorship coincided with the Falklands War — which, conscious of the number of Britons working in Saudi Arabia, Almaeena insisted on calling the “Malvinas War,” as it is known in Argentina.
“It was a deliberate attempt… The Brits used to get angry, and that was the start of ‘Letters to the Editor’,” Almaeena said. The practice even prompted Sir James Craig, the British ambassador at the time, to write in to the newspaper, something Almaeena said was unprecedented in the Saudi press.

The Gulf war
The Gulf war represented both the high, and low point of Almaeena’s editorship of Arab News.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, it sparked the news story of the decade for Almaeena. It was also one he was almost banned from writing.
“The minister of information called us on Aug. 2, 1990 and said not to write that Iraq had invaded Kuwait. I suffered all kinds of mini strokes in my mind,” Almaeena recalled.
“So I went to him… and I told him that ‘I will kiss your hand, Mr. Minister. The world knows that Saddam is in Kuwait... And you’re asking me not to write?’. I couldn’t do that.
“To me, I think that was the worst day of my life, even in my personal life. Because I couldn’t live with it.”
In the end, Almaeena got around the ban by carrying a headline that suggested all was not well in Kuwait — yet some of his fellow newspaper editors were not so bold.
“There were some other editors, poor people, who had to write ‘production of strawberries is on the rise’, and stuff like that,” he said. “We had to tell the truth. I could never be a toady, or curry favors with people.”
Despite that attempted interference by the government, Almaeena said that the Saudi kings — most of whom he met over the course of his career and personal life, given his family’s close historical ties with the royal family — had never interfered with the newspaper. “They never told you what you wrote, what you didn’t write,” he said.

CNN calling
While the first day of the Gulf War was the low point, the conflict also proved a highlight of Almaeena’s editorship, and helped put Arab News on the map.
Almaeena formed a team with editors of other publications to cover the invasion, moving the newspaper’s HQ to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.
The newspaper ended up becoming a reference point for the international media covering the Gulf War, with famous journalists such as Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric, Deborah Amos and the late Bob Simon seeking out information from Arab News.
“All these people came, because we were a source of news,” said Almaeena. “That put Arab News right on the map. I think that was the turning point of Arab News, in 1990, when CNN (was quoting) us.”
More than 20 years later, Almaeena was editing Arab News — for the second time — when the 9/11 terror attack hit the US. Given this was now the Internet age, many people were searching for “Arab” stories online, and the newspaper’s name naturally popped up in the results. In the space of one week, the newspaper received thousands of hate-mail messages, many using foul language. But Almaeena got a team of volunteers together to reply, at least to those using civil language, to calm them and explain the newspaper’s position.

The future
Almaeena is now managing partner of the Quartz communication company and has several other interests including social work and mentoring. Although he writes regular columns in Makkah newspaper as well as Saudi Gazette, he does not miss the daily grind of journalism.
“I don’t miss the headlines and deadlines,” he said.
That said, Almaeena sees a solid future for Arab News, of which he is editor emeritus.
“Arab News has always been a bridge between the expatriates, the Saudis and the government.
“I truly believe it can play a role, because now they are online, and the paper can really go ahead and do it.”
“But we have to be seen as an independent voice: Accurate, factual and not afraid to speak out when it needs to be done.”
And speaking out is something that Almaeena himself, over the course of his career, has certainly excelled in.

Saudi Arabia ‘will remain strongest ally of the US in Middle East’

Updated 13 December 2018

Saudi Arabia ‘will remain strongest ally of the US in Middle East’

  • Kingdom lies at the core of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, political and economic leaders told

Saudi Arabia will remain the strongest ally of the US in the Middle East and lies at the “heart and core” of President Trump’s foreign policy, some of the world’s leading politicians, economists and strategic analysts heard as they gathered to forecast the geopolitical state of the world in 2019.

At the 11th Arab Strategy Forum, an annual gathering to discuss worldwide political, economic, security and social scenarios and plan ways to help the region prepare for future challenges, speakers talked about a steadfast bond between the US and Saudi over the next 12 months. They said that Trump views the Kingdom as an unshakable ally with common regional interests including America’s fight against Iran, the peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a turbulent and fluctuating oil market.

“The Trump administration has been fighting very hard to move beyond Jamal Khashoggi,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, who joined Ambassador Dennis Ross, former assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and Bernardino Leon, director general of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in a panel discussion titled the “State of the World Politics in 2019.” 

“They have made it very clear that they want to focus on other interests; the Israel-Palestine peace process, the question of Iran, the oil market … President Trump has made it very clear that Saudi Arabia really lies at the heart and the core of his foreign policy.”

He said that despite “tremendous pressures to take further steps” against the Kingdom, “the reality so far seems to be that the president will not listen to the critics.”

Dr. Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia. 

He said that although the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has come under strain, “as long as Donald Trump remains in power the relationships will continue to stay.”

In the panel discussion, moderated by CNN’s Becky Anderson, Leon also addressed Saudi and US relations.

“There are two dimensions; one is internal US politics, the other is in terms of foreign policy. Foreign policy has to be determined by the government and will continue to be determined by the government — this is the rule. So if you see these relations, in historical terms Saudi Arabia has always been the main ally in the region for the United States. 

“This is a region where another traditional very strong ally, Turkey, is now in a different position and even though we are at a time where this region is probably experiencing more difficulties than ever before, the United States will continue to act on that basis. I do not expect big changes. I am sure we there will be waves and I am sure the US Congress will call for more transparency and more information after what happened after Khashoggi, probably this is going to happen. But there will be no structural changes.”

Ross said that US policy — which states that if the president vetoes a decision, Congress may override the veto by a two-thirds supermajority of both houses — means it would be “very difficult” for Congress to overturn any decision on sanctions against the Kingdom that Trump, who has been vocal in his continuing support and relations with Saudi Arabia. He added that “most of the pressure” from federal government would be more likely to be dominated by the ongoing Trump-Russia investigations.

Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, left, in conversation with Dr. Ian Bremmer. 

After being addressed by Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, who posed a question about US-Middle East relations and asked if the US would distance itself from the Arab world, Ross said that the US would continue to have a vested interest in Middle Eastern activities.

“Las Vegas rules do not apply to the Middle East, what takes place in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East. That is ultimately why we have to stay involved in it.” 

Abbas began the first panel discussion of the day, “Discussing Megatrends in 2019,” by questioning speaker Dr. Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia, about oil prices, Saudi Arabia’s international and regional relations and his predictions for the year ahead. 

Bremmer addressed the recent announcement by Qatar that it was withdrawing from the oil exporters’ group OPEC, saying the move would have little impact or fallout.

“Qatar in OPEC is a marginal player so I do not think their leaving is significant.”

Bremmer said that Qatar attended the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) annual summit in Riyadh this week and that Qataris and Saudis “directly engaged” was a move to be looked at in a “positive” way.

At the forum, attended by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Bremmer began his address by saying that 2019 should not see any real turbulent crisis, and highlighted the “good news” of “robust” predictions laid out by the International Monetary Fund that state the global economy will grow 3.7 percent this year. 

However, he said that 2020 is likely to witness another recession and warned — unlike the shows of unity after the 2008/09 financial crisis — of a fractious and “dysfunctional” geopolitical landscape that will mean the world will be unlikely to be able to bounce back easily.

“The good news is the 2019 economy will not be horrible. The bad news; the next economic downturn will be much worse. My worry is that whenever the next downturn comes we have a problem. The thing about the last major recession … which was a big one, is the response from all the world’s major economies. They all worked together in saying we have a problem, we need to get out of this together.

“Whenever the next downturn happens — which economists say is 2020 — when it comes the political reaction it is not going to be like 2008/9.”

Instead, the world is likely to witness a “blame-game” with countries pointing the finger at one another. Bremmer warned: “This is the most fraught geopolitical period in my lifetime … and the dysfunction is only going to grow.”

The geopolitical landscape has been heightened by a series of world events, including the “disastrous”  negations over Brexit, France’s “yellow vest” protests, the looming end to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reign,  the state of US-China relations and the recent US sanctions on Iran.

Bremmer also raised concern over cybercrime and the shadow economy. He said that three of his biggest concerns from 2018 were North Korea-linked hackers stealing millions from ATMs across the world, Russian hackers using antivirus software to steal US cyber capabilities to attack Ukraine’s online network and the accounts of millions of Chinese web users being compromised in a series of hacks.

At the forum, speakers also discussed mega-trends and forecast the future of economics and government policies in the region.

The role of Iran as a leading state sponsor of terror and the impact of US sanctions was a factor among many of the key discussions. Ross said: “The interesting thing with Iran in 2019 is to see how they will tackle the internal pressure internally due to there economic decline,” while Bremmer said it was likely that Tehran would seek to wait out the Trump administration.

The growing role of China also dominated discussions. Leon said: “The US and China are two heavyweights that will keep their battle going on but it will not need to escalate much more, due to the nature of global economic markets,” while speakers highlighted the “winding down” of the war in Yemen as a positive trend in 2019.

In the “State of the Arab World Economy in 2019,” Dr. Nasser Saidi, former Lebanese minister of economy and trade, and Dr. Mahmoud Mohieldin, senior vice president of the World Bank Group, said that there was a general consensus that the economic recession would most likely start in 2019 and predicted an era of “turbulence” over the next 12 months, including a ripple effect across the GCC caused by oil price fluctuations. 

At the same panel discussion, H.E Nasser Judeh, former deputy prime minister of foreign affairs of Jordan, Dr. Ayad Allawi, former prime minister of Iraq and the leader of the National Accord, and H.E Nabil Fahmy, former foreign minister of Egypt, deliberated on the regional landscape over the next 12 months, with Allawi warning that the region is a “fertile ground” for terrorist groups should it not stabilize and not implement reforms that the Arab world is in “dire need of.” 

Fahmy addressed Qatar relations, saying that while a fragmented Arab world comes at the expense of every country, he was “not optimistic for radical change” in Qatar’s policies and said that the GCC could not back down to a country that refuses to “change its internal methodology.” 

“Qatar has to be a player — not an adversary.”

Ahead of the forum, Mohammed Al-Gergawi, minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, and chairman of the organizing committee, said the Arab Strategy Forum was launched as a platform for balanced analysis by decision-makers to offer a clearer understanding of the economic and political outlook for the Arab region and the world.