LONDON: If anyone were in any doubt about the truth of the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel “The Go-Between” — “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” — they need only take a trip down the memory lane that is the Arab News archive.
Launched on Sunday April 20, 1975, as Saudi Arabia’s first English-language newspaper, for the past 45 years Arab News has been the nation’s go-to paper of record, covering regional and global events for the benefit of nationals and expats alike.
At the same time, however, it has built an invaluable archive of contemporary coverage of events that serves as a first draft of history for future generations — and a reminder that the past is indeed a foreign country. Perhaps nothing illustrates the gulf between then and now so much as the adverts to be found in the earliest issues of the newspaper, many of which reflect social history in the making.
Issue No. 115, from Aug. 31, 1975, for example, features a flurry of adverts for heavy-duty road-making machinery, reflecting the 1970s boom in highway construction (“We do not operate on the moon (not yet!),” brags E.A. Juffali & Bros, importer of the Barber-Greene range of asphalt-laying machines, “but our machines are worthy of the space age.”).
Another ad in the same issue, placed four years before the Iranian revolution and the seizure of Makkah’s Grand Mosque by religious extremists, speaks of a relaxed national liberality to which Saudi Arabia is only now returning. “Sexy Musk Oil, another product from Europe,” readers are told in an advert next to a story about planned Arab-Israeli peace talks in Geneva, is “the real feminine perfume.”
Adverts for perfumes — all, naturally, from Europe — are a recurring theme during the paper’s early years, along with an ever-present subtext that will remind social historians that throughout the world in the 1970s, sexism was still the norm. The scent Caron Paris, reads one advert from September 1975, “is the kind of French every woman understands.”
Alongside the ads, in the era of pre-political correctness, cartoons imported from the US tell a similar story (Wife, holding steering wheel, to horrified husband: “Promise you won’t laugh when I tell you what I did with the car?”).
But the adverts tell other stories, exclusive to the rapidly transforming and vibrant Saudi economy, fueled by the flow of oil, which by 1976 had hit a record 3 billion barrels per year. Throughout the 1970s, the paper’s classified ads recorded a period of almost frantic entrepreneurship as businesses large and small sought to profit from the Kingdom’s rapid development.
A Bombay-based employment agency, “supplying all kinds of personnel to various employers in the Arab Countries,” offers a multitude of professional, skilled and unskilled staff, including “doctors, nurses, engineers, mechanics, drivers, carpenters, masons, typists, clerks, etc.” Alongside an advert for suspended ceilings, placed by a company in France, is another offering cranes for hire, complete with “expert American operators.”
For those making vast amounts of money from Saudi Arabia’s development boom, discreet international banking services are offered by the Foreign Commerce Bank, “your private banking connection in Switzerland.” Meanwhile, an American manufacturer of modular, pre-cast concrete and steel structures, “suitable for homes, apartments, offices, warehouses, schools, hospitals, etc.,” urgently seeks a distributor in the Kingdom.
On July 16, 1977, many businesses anxiously awaiting the arrival of goods from overseas — increasingly in demand among expats and locals as oil wealth flowed through the economy — would have been relieved to read that three container ships operated by Sea-Land had arrived at the port of Dammam, where “delivery orders are ready for pickup” from the office of agents Rezayat Trading.
Throughout its first decade, Arab News carried regular port-movement notices, which speak eloquently of a nation developing rapidly and heavily reliant on imported goods. On one day in 1977 alone, more than 80 vessels docked in Jeddah and Dammam, carrying everything from chickens, watermelon and wheat to timber, steel and cement.
Other adverts throughout the 1970s serve as reminders of how much the world has changed. In December 1979, 10 years before Nikon produced the world’s first commercial digital single-lens reflex camera (if you do not know what that is, ask your grandparents), a half-page advert for a Kodak Colorburst reminds posterity that back then the nearest thing to the still-distant age of instant digital photography were Polaroid-style cameras (again, ask your grandparents).
In a reminder that the first desktop computer, or word processor, had still not arrived to revolutionize the worlds of business and leisure, an advert for a male secretary placed in December 1979 demands 60-70-words-per-minute shorthand — and skill in “IBM typing.”
The Apple II, the world’s first successful (although by today’s standards prehistorically clunky) home computer, had been launched by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1977 (at the phenomenal price of approximately $5,500 in today’s money). The first IBM personal computer, however, would not start transforming office life until its launch in August 1981.
For a reminder of just how boxy most cars used to be, look no further than page 5 of the issue of Dec. 5, 1979, where none other than former world champion boxer Muhammad Ali, still two years away from an overdue retirement, promotes the virtues of “seven world champions” from Toyota on behalf of Saudi car company Abdul Latif Jameel. “When it comes to boxing, I am the champ!” Ali declares, with his left fist raised. “But when it comes to cars and trucks, nobody can beat Toyota!”
With hindsight, some adverts are historically poignant. On Dec. 8, 1979, the Lebanon Tourist Office, seemingly optimistic that the devastation of the civil war that had derailed the country’s economy was behind it, placed an advert declaring that the formerly popular tourist destination was “back in business, back ‘en route’.”
Readers of Arab News were urged to come and enjoy Lebanon’s 3,797 luxury hotel bedrooms, wide range of sports activities and entertainment, 30 conference halls, 81 banks, absence of currency exchange regulations and “4,000 telex lines to help you take full advantage of the restriction-free trading.” But the hope that Lebanon was on the road to recovery was premature. Two years later, Israel invaded the country.
Sometimes, the adverts of the past transcend the everyday. Throughout December 1979, nestling between invitations to visit the second Saudi Arabia Motor Show at the Jeddah International Expo Center to view “America’s finest” new cars, and for expats to spend two nights over Christmas at Al-Hada Sheraton hotel, can be found sombre reminders that the Kingdom’s path to development and modernization was far from smooth.
In the issue of Dec. 13, 1979, published nine days after the end of the 10-day siege of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, several companies took out large adverts congratulating the leadership.
“We rejoice in the resounding victory of the Saudi forces over the band of renegades responsible for desecrating Islam’s holiest shrine, the Holy Kaaba,” read one half-page advert from Algosaibi Foods, which congratulated King Khalid, Crown Prince Fahd, Prince Abdullah “and the valiant Saudi people.”
Within weeks, 63 of the captured terrorists had been executed in eight cities across Saudi Arabia, but the country was to pay a high price for the victory. The seizure of the mosque shocked the entire Islamic world and, coming as it did in the wake of the Iranian revolution, provoked concerns that the Kingdom was embracing Western ways too fast, too soon, leading to a reversal of modernization from which Saudi society is only now recovering.