DUBAI: Having worked as a journalist for almost 50 years, Othman Al-Omeir is certainly not short of stories.
The list of his interview subjects, as editor of several Arabic newspapers and founder of Elaph.com, is like a who’s who of the modern age. He has quizzed everyone from Gorbachev to George Bush Senior, from Margaret Thatcher to John Major.
The legendary media man is in Dubai this week for the Arab Media Forum, and his achievements are set to be marked at tonight’s International Media Gala (IMG), organized by Arab News.
Al-Omeir, who was born in 1950 in Riyadh, began his career in journalism as a teenager almost 50 years ago. He started out as a junior sports correspondent for a Saudi newspaper, and quickly established a name for himself.
In 1980 he was named editor in chief of Al-Yaum newspaper, becoming the youngest editor in chief in the history of Saudi Arabia. He also held various posts at Al-Jazirah newspaper, as well as editor in chief of Al-Majalla magazine and Asharq Al-Awsat, sister newspaper to Arab News.
In 2001, Al-Omeir set up Elaph.com, the Arab world’s first online newspaper, which quickly became one of the region’s leading news portals. He was quick to realize the potential of online media, but not all his industry colleagues were convinced back then.
“At the time, everyone was laughing at me, thinking it was a crazy idea, saying that people are not going to read news from a machine,” Al-Omeir tells Arab News. “People had no idea that the new media would be the solution.”
Yet while the online media revolution did of course take hold, it brought with it its own set of challenges — both in terms of politics and profits.
Elaph.com is based in London, and so not subject to the severe restrictions on press freedom apparent in many the parts of the world it reports on.
Yet the website is still blocked in some countries, and Al-Omeir said making money from a politics-news site is not easy.
“I had several problems with the governments of many countries,” he said.
“To have a political newspaper is not that easy. If you look at all the political newspapers (you) see they are not really profitable. You have to have another business supporting it.”
To this end, Elaph is branching out into other areas, such as a portal in Morocco, geared towards women, the youth market, luxury goods and lifestyle.
“This is the way, I think, to survive with a political newspaper or magazine,” he said.
But as international media executives descend on Dubai this week for the annual Arab Media Forum, there are other serious issues up for discussion.
The quality of journalists and limited freedom of speech in many parts of the Middle East are among the most pressing issues, Al-Omeir said.
“I think we have enough Arab press everywhere… We need now to have the quality, more than the quantity. We need quality people, quality journalists,” he said.
But the mainstream press also faces a challenge from social media, which is not subject to the same restrictions on freedom of speech, Al-Omeir said.
“Media are now paralyzed in front of social media... It’s going to be paralyzed more if the society, government (do not) encourage the mainstream to be free,” he said.
“We need freedom of speech.”
This issue is not as much of a challenge for Elaph.com given its base in London. Al-Omeir has followed the UK media scene through several landmark moments, including the Wapping dispute of 1986. Back then, media mogul Rupert Murdoch moved his newspapers to Wapping in East London, firing anyone who refused to work with new technology, and initiating an ugly battle with the unions.
It was a divisive time, but eventually seen as a victory for Murdoch and the government of Margaret Thatcher.
“I was supportive of Thatcher,” Al-Omeir said. “I was thinking that it was a good direction to move the industry, and to change the face of the British media. Otherwise, the British would be like European media (which are) not really on the same level.”
Thatcher was one of Al-Omeir’s interview subjects, and he still has a signed photograph of her.
Another memorable encounter was with Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor. Al-Omeir said he had an off-the-record briefing with Kohl, but accidentally left his tape recorder on. When he listened to the tape he heard the German leader be highly critical of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Al-Omeir wrote the story, but did not attribute the quotes directly to Kohl. But he was surprised to get a call from the German authorities the next day, denying that it was the country’s official point-of-view.
Al-Omeir has many other anecdotes to share, but stops short in our interview — he wants to save some for his planned memoirs. You sense this legendary journalist, 50 years into his career, has many more stories to tell.
A LASTING LEGACY
BORN: Al-Zulfi, Riyadh, 1950
EDUCATION: High School, Madinah
1980: Named editor in chief (EIC) of Al-Yaum newspaper
1981: Deputy EIC of Al-Jazirah newspaper, Riyadh
1983: Named London correspondent for Al-Jazirah
1984: Becomes EIC of Al-Majalla, the London-based news magazine
1987: Becomes EIC of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, London
1993: Member of the Royal Academy in Morocco
1995: Set up a UK-based production company, OR Media
Limited, with Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
2001: Launches Elaph.com
2001: Named board director for Al-Jazirah newspaper
2003: Acquired Maroc Soir publishing house, the leading
newspaper publisher in Casablanca, which publishes
newspapers in French and Arabic.
2007: Becomes co-chairman of Strategic Communications Group
in UAE, and co-chairman of Saif Emerging Markets,
representing Kroll Associates in the Gulf.
Awarded the Media Man of the Year Prize by the Arab Media Forum in Dubai in 2007
Awarded the Media Innovation Prize by the Arab Thought Foundation in 2007
Awarded the New Media for the Future Prize by Anna Lindh Foundation in December 2009