Front page of Asharq Al-Awsat
|Owner(s)||Saudi Research and Marketing Group|
Asharq al-Awsat (Arabic: الشرق الأوسط, meaning "The Middle East") is an Arabic international newspaper headquartered in London. A pioneer of the "off-shore" model in the Arabic press, the paper is often noted for its distinctive green-tinted pages.
The New York Times in 2005 called Asharq al-Awsat "one of the oldest and most influential in the region". Although published under the name of a private company, the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, the paper was founded with the approval of the Saudi royal family and government ministers, and is noted for its support of the Saudi government. The newspaper is owned by Faisal bin Salman, a member of the Saudi royal family.
Launched in London in 1978, and printed on four continents in 14 cities. The paper is often billed as "the leading Arab daily newspaper", and calls itself "the premier pan-Arab daily newspaper" based on the fact that past estimates of its circulation have given it the largest circulation of the off-shore Pan-Arab dailies, a category including its chief competitor Al-Hayat. However, reliable estimates are available only from the early 2000s, before rival Al-Hayat launched a massive effort to increase circulation in Saudi Arabia.
Asharq Al-Awsat covers events through a network of bureaus and correspondents throughout the Arab World, Europe, United States, and Asia. The paper also has copyright syndications with the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Global Viewpoint, permitting it to publish Arabic translations of columnists like Thomas Friedman and David Ignatius.
The paper's first editor-in-chief Jihad Khazen, now a columnist and editor emeritus for the rival pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, gave credit to Hisham Hafiz, with the subsequent support of his brother Mohammed Ali Hafez, for the initial idea of establishing an Arabic-language newspaper in London. Then the daily was launched in 1978. Former editor-in-chief Othman Al Omeir has likewise given credit to the brothers, Hisham and Mohammad Hafiz, for founding and then overseeing the paper. Together with El Khazen, the brothers set out to prove the value of the idea through a number of trial issues to the then-Crown Prince and later king Fahd, who had initially warmed to the thought but then lost his enthusiasm. Khazen also gave credit to the then-Saudi ambassador to London and then-deputy minister of information in helping gain Fahd's verbal approval for issuing the newspaper while the prince was on an official visit to England.
Controversy over the Camp David Accords
After the news of the paper's first big scoop (regarding the formation of the U.S. Central Command for the Middle East), the still new newspaper made its name through the controversy surrounding the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty.
In the face of widespread criticism from contributors and staff toward the Camp David Accords and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Cairo bureau chief Salah al Din Hafez resigned. Then, Sadat held a press conference with the new Asharq Al Awsat bureau chief by his side in which the Egyptian president attacked the newspaper and its stance toward the peace process in general, citing his suspicions of the bureau chief's "high" salary, and accusing Prince Fahd of using the newspaper as a weapon against Egypt and the Egyptian president personally.
Khazen later reminisced about the events, saying: "I think that this press conference was worth a million dollars (in its value at the time) of free publicity for the newspaper, which since became the subject of interest for many foreign governments and the foreign media."
In addition to Jihad Khazen, other well-known past editors include Erfan Nizameddine, Othman Al Omeir (founder of Elaph), and Abdul Rahman Al Rashed (general manager of Al Arabiya between April 2004 and November 2014).
Former editor was Tariq Alhomayed whose leadership earned mixed reviews as it was associated with much criticism of Asharq Al-Awsat. In July 2012, Adel Al Toraifi, chief editor of The Majalla, was appointed deputy chief editor of Asharq Al Awsat. On 1 January 2013, Al Toraifi replaced Alhomayed as editor of the paper. Al Toraifi's term ended in July 2014.
Reputation and competition
Though the newspaper is owned by Faisal bin Salman, and is considered more pro-Saudi than rival Al-Hayat, Asharq Al-Awsat has billed itself as the "leading international Arabic paper," as it was the first Arabic daily to use satellite transmission for simultaneous printing in a number of sites across the world. Media scholar Marc Lynch has called Asharq al-Awsat "the most conservative" of the major pan-Arab papers.
The paper's chief competitors in Saudi Arabia are Al Hayat and Okaz; globally, its chief competitor is Al Hayat, though it is often paired with Al-Quds Al-Arabi which is considered to be its polar opposite. According to this dichotomy, Asharq Al Awsat represents the "moderate camp" when compared to the "rejection camp" of Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
Controversies and criticisms
Ex-editor Alhomayed is widely criticised for publishing a series of vindictive articles about the State of Qatar between 2004 and 2008, a period that witnessed a disturbance in Saudi/Qatari official relations. The highlight of that phase was when the paper published three reports about the Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani's trip to an Arab foreign ministers' conference in Beirut during the Lebanon conflict in August 2006. Asharq Al Awsat claimed he had held discussions with Israeli ministers en route to the conference, briefing them on the Arab position. When Sheikh Hamad denied the allegations in the first story, Asharq Al Awsat printed a second article, accusing him of lying. A third piece, written by Alhomayed himself, repeated the claims.
However, in July 2008, Alhomayed stated that the allegations were untrue and apologized at the High Court in London "for any embarrassment" caused. In its apology, which the newspaper also published in its print and web edition, Alhomayed said that "Sheikh Hamad did not hold secret discussions with the Israeli government en route to the Beirut Conference". Sheikh Hamad's solicitor, Cameron Doley, said: "It is an unequivocal victory. Allegations of that nature at that time could have been damaging to him and Qatar. The paper has accepted that it got it wrong. My client is happy with that—there was never anything more in it for him than getting that admission." This story was even confirmed in Asharq Al Awsat's sister publication, Arab News.
However, on another occasion Asharq Al Awsat was accused of publishing a false interview regarding football club Portsmouth. The following day The Guardian mentioned that the interview was actually true.
Banning of critical writers
Critics of Alhomayed claim he bans Asharq Al Awsat writers who are highly critical of Saudi Arabia or its allies, although the allegations were never on solid ground except once for Mona Eltahawy, who wrote she was banned however, she was the one who stepped down. Alhomayed responded to Eltahawy in both the English and Arabic version of Asharq Al Awsat.
Alhomayed is believed to have banned several other writers including the Managing Director of Al Arabiya News Channel and former editor in chief of Asharq Al Awsat, Abdulrahman Al Rashed. As Eltahawi notes, in the majority of cases – the writer was left to discover on their own that he or she was banned rather than receiving a reason or justification from Alhomayed.
However, Al-Rashed's banning caused quite an international stir in mid-September 2010 and Alhomayed told AFP that the newspaper never banned him—though nothing official was reported about the matter until 16 September 2010 when the paper quoted al-Rashed saying that he voluntarily stopped writing for them.
On 18 September 2010, Al Rashed returned to writing in Asharq Al Awsat.
Censoring controversial stories
Alhomayed's era witnessed some major Saudi-related stories being ignored or censored. For example, under Alhomayed Asharq Al Awsat completely ignored the story of the Saudi princess who was granted asylum in the UK after facing death threats in her country for giving birth to 'love-child' of a British citizen and the trial of a Gay Saudi Prince who murdered his servant in 2010. This was openly criticized by a member of the newspaper staff, Manal Lutfi Khalil, who spoke of how the Saudi paper intentionally ignored the story on BBC Arabic.
Under Alhomayed as well, Asharq Alawsat ignored many sensitive stories relating to Saudi Allies, such as the United Arab Emirates as it didn't report on the infamous scandal of Emirati Sheikh Issa Bin Zayed who appeared torturing one of his workers in a home-video which was leaked to the media. One example of Alhomayed's perceived bias towards his Arab allies was shown when he joined other Arab newspaper columnists in labeling US President Barack Obama as the lead contributor for Syria's ongoing crisis for not accepting requests to take military action in Syria.
Furthermore, Alhomayed was accused of having double standards for not reporting freely about his own country but having his reporters say as they wish about other, this was one of the examples that Hafiz Al Merazi, a TV presenter for Al Arabiya, used on live TV to portray bias in the Saudi-owned media outlets, such as Asharq Al Awsat.
In 2016, Asharq al-Awsat issued a report regarding Arba'een pilgrimage which was proven to be false, according to Agence France-Presse. The "Saudi-owned" paper said that according to World Health Organization report "unplanned pregnancies and [...] disease" are seen "following the arrival of scores of unregulated Iranians to take part in the annual Shia pilgrimage to Karbala." According to the article, 169 unmarried women had become pregnant from the Iranian pilgrims.
UN’s health agency rejected the claim of issuance of such a report by WHO. WHO "slammed" the allegations of Asharq al-Awsat and condemned mentioning its name in what it called an "unfounded" news. According to Rana Sidani, spokeswoman for the WHO, the organization was "shocked" by Asharq al-Awsat's report. In a TV interview, she said that they were "consulting with the Iraqi ministry of health on possible legal action against the paper." Haider al-Abadi, Iraqi Prime Minister, and "several other leading Shiite figures" condemned the Asharq al-Awsat's report and demanded an "apology".
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