Saturday, 24 February 2024

Behind the Headlines: Unraveling Illusions – My Experience Working for a UAE-Owned Newspaper

Behind the Headlines: Unraveling Illusions – My Experience Working for a UAE-Owned Newspaper
Wednesday, 06 December 2023 21:33

"Unveiling My Experience in Abu Dhabi: Navigating the Controversies and Realities

In recent weeks, The Telegraph has sparked discussions about Abu Dhabi, prompting me to address my own vested interest in the matter. Not only do I write this column, but I've also lived and worked in Abu Dhabi for a newspaper that has drawn attention in the context of Sheikh Mansour's purported bid for control. This controversy has led some commentators to question whether he should be involved with the newspaper.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I often find myself echoing the sentiments of BBC reporters covering a BBC scandal when discussing Abu Dhabi: "We contacted the BBC for a comment, but nobody was available," says a BBC journalist, standing outside a BBC building, reporting on a BBC news bulletin. My connection to the topic isn't just professional; it's personal, having experienced the city firsthand.

When the UAE comes up in conversation, I occasionally ask, "Have you ever been to Abu Dhabi or Dubai?" The responses often reveal a lack of firsthand experience, with people citing reasons ranging from the country's influence on football teams, building projects, the Royal family, climate conferences, to the allure for Instagram celebrities seeking sunshine and steak. Now, with the prospect of UAE influence on our media, the discussions intensify.

Admittedly, there's much to criticize about the region – its human rights record, the controversial treatment of royal daughters, stringent laws, and the sweltering summers lasting four to five months. When I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008 at the age of 23, I was oblivious to many of these aspects. London's gloomy atmosphere, coupled with talk of the "Credit Crunch," made an offer for a job at an exciting newspaper in Abu Dhabi an easy "yes," despite my limited knowledge of the city's location on a map.

As the complexities of Abu Dhabi's influence unfold, my personal and professional connection adds depth to the ongoing conversation about the intersection of global power, media, and individual experience."

"Chronicles of The National: An Insider's Tale of Abu Dhabi's Grand Ambitions

In the era when Abu Dhabi was unveiling ambitious projects like the Louvre, a Guggenheim, a Zaha Hadid performing arts center, a Grand Prix track, and swanky hotels with restaurants by culinary maestros like Marco Pierre White, The National emerged as the city's own English-language newspaper. This was part of a grand plan by the rulers, mainly the Al-Nahyan family, to bolster the city's global reputation. A team predominantly composed of British and Canadian journalists, led by a former Telegraph editor, was swiftly assembled, enticing with paychecks that seemed too good to be true.

For many, including myself, the allure of tax-free earnings, luxurious accommodations overlooking pristine beaches, and the promise of a vibrant social life made the prospect irresistible. Living in a city that felt like an updated version of 'White Mischief,' weekends were a blend of beach clubs, boozy brunches, and impromptu getaways to exotic destinations like Nepal or Azerbaijan.

The job, initially enthralling, allowed me to be part of the burgeoning art scene, interview musicians, and cover restaurant openings where Marco Pierre White himself would serve steak with his fingers. The features desk at The National was a dynamic space for British journalists, fostering stories that ranged from reviewing camel burgers to interviewing a Backstreet Boy and covering Dubai fashion week. It was a melting pot of experiences, a perfect training ground for a young writer.

Yet, as the initial excitement waned, the narrative took a turn. The glossy facade of luxury living began to reveal the complexities of a city under construction, grappling with cultural differences and navigating the intersection of journalism and global ambitions. The journey unfolded, providing valuable insights, unexpected adventures, and a unique perspective on the enthralling world of Abu Dhabi's grand aspirations."

"Navigating the Decline: A Chronicle of The National's Evolution

Initially touted as a beacon of independent journalism in the Gulf, The National faced a gradual erosion of its freedom and vibrancy, leaving a bitter taste for those who had once celebrated its promise. The reins tightened, particularly during Ramadan, when the editorial team found themselves shackled, forbidden from covering topics deemed risqué or offensive. The very essence of this grand newspaper, originally envisioned as an exciting independent voice for the region, seemed to dwindle.

As restrictions mounted, the news desk reportedly underwent a similar transformation, overlooking potential front-page stories for more sanitized topics like new transport links. Martin Newland, the original editor, was replaced, and the once-thriving workplace began to resemble a PR outfit, echoing the rhetoric of a Soviet Union apparatchik. The narrative shifted from nuanced journalism to unwavering praise for the UAE, often brushing aside inconvenient truths—be it the grueling conditions of laborers building the city or the discriminatory laws against homosexuality and women.

Despite the dazzling facets of the UAE, including its breathtaking desert expanses and the morning sun reflecting off the Dubai skyline, the gloss started to fade. Returning to London after two years, I couldn't help but feel grateful to be back home. While acknowledging the positive aspects and remarkable development speed, the Gulf's human rights record loomed large. The paradox of judgment also surfaced—why are certain places deemed 'bad,' while others with comparable shortcomings garner less scrutiny?

The UAE's media scene, particularly with the prospect of The National falling under the control of the same figure overseeing its decline, becomes a cause for concern. Unless one has an insatiable appetite for articles about London tube stations, the prospects seem less than appealing. As the narrative shifts, so does the perception of a once-promising journalistic venture, raising questions about the true cost of progress in the Gulf."

"In conclusion, the journey chronicled in The National's evolution reflects the complexities of media in the Gulf and the challenges faced by those striving for journalistic independence. From the initial excitement of being part of a groundbreaking newspaper to the gradual tightening of editorial restrictions, the transformation raises concerns about the preservation of true journalistic freedom.

The allure of the UAE, with its dazzling landscapes and rapid development, cannot overshadow the abysmal human rights record and the selective narratives that often prioritize positive PR over critical reporting. The paradox of judgment in comparing different nations with similar shortcomings prompts reflection on the factors that shape public perception.

As the prospect of The National being overseen by the same authority controlling its decline looms, the future of media in the region seems uncertain. The narrative shift, from vibrant independence to sanitized praise, underscores the delicate balance between progress and preserving the core tenets of journalism. In this unfolding story, the cost of progress in the Gulf becomes a poignant question, leaving us to ponder the true price of chasing grand ambitions in the pursuit of global recognition."

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