JEDDAH: Brothers Hisham and Mohammed Hafiz had a dream: To publish a daily, English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. In 1972, they began to seriously discuss how they might turn that dream into a reality.
Almost everyone they spoke to was skeptical about the idea. Undeterred, in 1974, they pushed ahead with their plans and began to buy the equipment they needed. They also hired Ahmad Mahmoud to be the newspaper’s first editor-in-chief, and sent him to Pakistan to hire a team of journalists.
The first issue of Arab News, a 16-page tabloid, was published on April 20, 1975, from a small garage in Jeddah. Thanks to its instant popularity, and the quantity of advertising it generated, by the end of August it had blossomed into a broadsheet.
The late Farouk Luqman, who died in July 2019 at the age of 84, was there at the beginning and became editor-in-chief 18 years later. In his book “Globalization of the Arabic Press,” he told the story of the Hafiz brothers and their incredible journey, which began with the launch of Arab News and grew into the biggest publishing house in the Middle East. He revealed that in the early days the newspaper had only six employees, including the editor-in-chief.
“We were doing everything, from writing stories to translating news and laying out pages,” said Luqman, who was managing editor at the time of the launch. The entire operation was based in the garage — from writing, editing and layout to advertising and administration.
“We worked until dawn preparing the first issue and the publishers stayed with us all the time until we finished and printed,” Luqman said. “They were true journalists and often pointed out mistakes, even spelling errors.”
Newcomer Arab News was in direct competition with the renowned International Herald Tribune, which was published in Paris, and the Lebanese Daily Star, both of which went on sale in Saudi Arabia the day after initial publication.
According to Luqman, Arab News proved popular not only with Europeans and Americans but also Asians and Africans.
During an interview in 2005, Mahmoud, the first editor-in-chief, recalled the offer of the top job caught him off guard.
“One fine morning in 1974, I got a call from Mohammed Ali Hafiz asking me to meet him and his brother,” he said. “At that time I was with Al-Madinah Arabic newspaper. They told me about their project and, in the same breath, offered me the post of editor-in-chief. That took me completely by surprise.”
Mahmoud added that he did not have much time to ponder the offer as the Hafiz brothers told him the first issue would roll off the presses within six months.
“I did accept the offer, but I made it clear that I had no experience in English journalism,” he said. The response of the Hafiz brothers was: “When one is a journalist, one will always be a journalist.”
Like all new arrivals, Arab News had its share of teething problems. Following some trial dummy runs, Mahmoud — assisted by Luqman, who had experience of English-language journalism — encountered a series of niggling problems as they tried to put this new and novel venture to bed every night.
“There were challenges and trials, but with youthful determination and zest we did our best and overcame them,” Mahmoud said. “Arab News came out in difficult circumstances. As it was the first of its kind, we had to face up to the fact of limited news sources, a dearth of photographs, inadequate manpower and poor printing quality. Despite all this, surprisingly, the paper was well received.”
Despite the large number of additional successful publications launched by the newspaper’s publishers in the past 45 years, most notably Asharq Al-Awsat, Arab News retains a special place in their hearts.
In a letter to readers, the Hafiz brothers wrote: “The solid base of Arab News, financially and its journalistic success, paved the way for the birth of other successful papers and magazines, of which the majority are still being read today.”
As for the distinctive green-tinted paper on which Arab News is printed, that tradition began with its Arabic sister paper, Asharq Al-Awsat. In 1978, when the Hafiz brothers launched the pan-Arab newspaper, which is published and printed in London and other European cities, they wanted to make it easy for readers to find their paper on newsstands.
Noting that almost all of the hundreds of newspapers available in a variety languages are published on white paper, they decided to print theirs on green stock so that it would stand out. Later, Arab News began to follow its sister paper’s example, using green paper for its front page.