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"We Are Not Here to Fight for Press Freedom"

The National wanted to be the Times of the Middle East. It failed

Marco Brivio/Getty Images News

In 2008, when a new government-owned newspaper debuted in the Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi, it was greeted as the latest sign of the formerly sleepy oil town’s cosmopolitan ambitions. The island city of around 900,000 was in the process of making itself home to a series of prestigious Western institutions. Plans had been hatched for branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre museums, as well as campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne. The National would be Abu Dhabi’s newest jewel—an English-language broadsheet staffed by both locals and well-paid foreign journalists and run by a management team that promised to serve as a Western-inspired model for other publications in the repressed Gulf region. 

The paper, quickly dubbed "The New York Times of the Middle East," was the first big foray of the newly-minted Abu Dhabi Media Company, a radio, publishing, digital and television enterprise largely driven by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Printed, as of late 2011, on 100 percent recycled paper, The National had four sections and a separate culture supplement called The Review. It gave Abu Dhabi a degree of media cachet that surpassed even its flashy northern neighbor, Dubai.

On the eve of its launch, Abu Dhabi Media feted the paper with a gala at the Emirates Palace Hotel. The ballroom was transformed into a setting resembling a giant tent. Guests sipped on mocktails and watched yola dancers wearing kanduras dyed in The National's signature blue. During a speech, Abu Dhabi Media chairman Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei crowed that The National "was born out of a vision that recognizes the key role that a free, professional and enlightened press plays in the national development process."

The National was greeted with optimism within American media circles. The enthusiasm wasn't confined to the paper's possible role in advancing press freedom in the Middle East. New publications weren't exactly springing to life in the U.S., so it seemed something of a blessing that a well-funded paper run by veteran newsmen was creating jobs overseas. In the beginning, it was helmed by Martin Newland, "an old fashioned Fleet Street editor," as someone close to him put it, who used to edit Britain's Daily Telegraph. Newland's launch team was able to offer lucrative tax-free salaries to dozens of seasoned journalists—Wall Street Journal veteran Bill Spindle; New Yorker fact-checker Jonathan Shainin; Pulitzer-nominated Baltimore Sun reporter Erika Niedowski, to name a few. (A payroll spreadsheet leaked to WikiLeaks in March 2009 revealed that the editor-in-chief was making $430,000; the business editor $300,000; $60,000 for a lowly features writer.) The Review, meanwhile, quickly became a reliable source of freelance assignments for American writers, including stars like George Packer and Steve Coll.

"Morale was high," a former editor recalled of the launch. "The attitude in the beginning was that we weren't going to go looking for trouble, but neither would we pass over things that were clearly news. There was a sense that this was going to be a serious, credible, highly professional news operation."

It was not to last. Today, The National is no longer the subject of media hype, nor is it an outlet for big-name Western writers. Instead, the newsroom has weathered a series of storms over its five years. Tensions over the management and direction of the paper have been simmering behind the scenes, with leadership changes, budget cuts, infighting and allegations of rampant self-censorship conspiring to trigger a series of defections that have depleted the paper of much of its marquee talent. Since the summer of 2011, I've spoken with more than a dozen current and former staffers. For the most part unwilling to go on the record because they didn't want to be seen as criticizing a place where they've worked, the veterans described how The National—embattled and unprofitable—has veered adrift from its lofty ambitions, rendering what could have been the last great newspaper launch of our time into a cautionary tale about pursuing journalism in a censored society. 

"If you could ignore the sting of the ethical breaches, then you could just enjoy them," wrote Tom O’Hara, a former editor on The National's foreign desk, in a recent American Journalism Review essay skewering the paper. "Once I grasped the priorities, I stopped worrying about journalism and focused on the humor."

Things went according to plan for the first six to twelve months. Veterans of The National's early days say the paper distinguished itself via unprecedented coverage of local issues such as health care, education reform, business, migrant labor, and the rights of domestic servants. "It did a good job covering economic matters, and quickly became the paper of record for economic development in the U.A.E.," said Christopher Davidson, a Middle East politics expert at Durham University's School of Government and International Affairs. "It had a high-caliber, motivated and optimistic staff who'd bought into a dream they'd been sold."

The thinking was that although the paper belonged to the state, it nevertheless aspired to embody the ideals of a Western news operation. Otherwise, who would take it seriously? As Hassan M. Fattah, then deputy editor, now editor in chief, told The New York Times, where he had previously worked as a Middle East stringer: "Being government-owned doesn't mean being government run. There are no ministers sitting in my office." (During an earlier iteration of my reporting for this article in 2011, Fattah, who also used to string for The New Republic, referred me to a spokeswoman for Abu Dhabi Media. The spokeswoman declined to make him available for an interview or to participate in the story. Neither Fattah nor representatives of Abu Dhabi Media have responded to repeated emails over the past two months. Reached on his cell phone one morning, Fattah reiterated that he was not permitted to speak with me and said press inquiries must go through the company's P.R. department.)

Still there were few illusions about the state of press freedoms in Abu Dhabi—a place where the government has the power to revoke a newspaper's license or hand down fines when reporters cross the invisible "red lines" dictating what information should and should not be published. "Anyone who went expecting a free press was kidding themselves," said Keach Hagey, who wrote for the paper's business desk and now covers media for The Wall Street Journal. "The goal of the paper was to slowly, over the years, push that line through actual journalism." This sentiment was reinforced in an early memo from Newland proclaiming: "We are not here to fight for press freedom."

Not all topics were fair game. The royal family, for instance, was off limits, a sanction that became problematic in June of 2008 when the Associated Press broke a story about a video apparently showing the brother of the crown prince torturing a former business associate. "We've got to be very, very careful," Newland said during an editorial meeting at the time, according to a Columbia Journalism Review reporter who was sitting in (Newland also did not respond to requests for comment). As Fattah told CJR at the time, "We're picking the battles we want to wage." For a while, The National ignored the scandal, even as it went viral internationally, but it eventually gave some coverage to the Sheikh's trial in 2009 and 2010.

In June of 2009, Newland resigned from his post as editor to take a corporate job with Abu Dhabi Media, where he is now publisher, according to his LinkedIn page. People who worked with him speculate that the Sheikh Issa saga put him over the edge, or that he had simply become weary of the watchful eye of Abu Dhabi's royals. Others say Fattah, who succeeded him, was always seen as the heir apparent and that Abu Dhabi Media was happy to have him take over after a well-respected editor like Newland had built up The National's credibility, even if many in the newsroom were skeptical about Fattah's editing and management experience.

Whatever the case, after Fattah was promoted, journalists at The National detected a pronounced shift in tone. Whereas Newland appeared to be genuinely at pains whenever he had to sterilize or kill a story, Fattah, a doughy Iraqi-American with a high-pitched laugh and a friendly but nervous manner, seemed all too willing to comply, and he often did so preemptively. People who have worked under him said he was eager to quash anything that might cause trouble, and that his definition of "trouble" was paranoid and expansive. 

The new editor reined in The National's earlier spirit of cautiously pushing the envelope, dressing down staffers who challenged him and regularly bowdlerizing coverage. Perhaps the most egregious example was the paper's treatment of the Dubai debt crisis in late 2009 and early 2010. The $80 billion financial fallout was big international news, and given The National's proximity to the heart of the story, one might have expected the paper to own it. Instead, The National's softball coverage was "embarrassingly bad," said a former business reporter. Words like "bailout" and "downturn" were banned, ledes buried and headlines hidden below the fold, sources said, so that The National would not be perceived as being critical of an image-sensitive neighboring emirate.

In May of 2011, The New York Times broke a big piece of news on The National's turf: The U.A.E. had commenced with plans to raise a private army with the help of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. The purpose of the clandestine mercenary force was to "blunt the regional aggression of Iran" and "respond to terrorist attacks and put down uprisings inside the country’s sprawling labor camps," the Times reported. At least two National reporters had been on the trail of that scoop, but were encouraged not to pursue the story, according to a former editor.

But even seemingly innocuous subjects became highly taboo fare. In February of 2010, for instance, a piece about Emiratis "embracing blogs" to address topics such as free speech and human rights was spiked because it was "too dangerous," as an editor put it to Fattah in an email that was shared with me by a source. Fattah and his two chief deputies, Tion Kwa and Bob Cowan, spend much of their time poring over page proofs for any such offending copy, according to people who worked alongside them in the newsroom.

"The self-censorship was daily and severe," said Nick Stout, who worked as a copy editor at The National until January of 2010. "There was just this pervasive paranoia. We avoided controversy at all costs and would shy from anything officialdom might find embarrassing or provocative in any way."

Not all alumni harbor negative feelings about the place. "It served me well," said Matt Bradley, who parlayed his job at The National into a gig as The Wall Street Journal's Cairo correspondent. (He works at The Journal with former colleagues Hagey, Tom Gara, and Spindle, who went back following his detour at The National.) "I'm very grateful."

"The National has been good to me," said the prominent columnist Sultan al-Qassemi, who stopped writing for The National in 2011. "It's a great paper and the staff there work hard to put a quality paper out."

By March 2010, the mood at The National had cooled substantially since its sanguine opening salvo two years earlier. Journalists were resigning, budgets were being squeezed and optimism about the paper’s future, both financial and editorial, was starting to wane. Fattah convened a rare staff meeting to address the unease.

Standing at the head of a conference table in The National's open-concept newsroom, Fattah looked nervous. His rambling address did little more than extol The National's supposed virtues in the face of sinking morale. "It was insane," a former National journalist said of the meeting. "Many people say it was the beginning of the downturn of The National," another remarked. "It was sort of a watershed moment," a third added, "when people started asking themselves, 'What is the future of this paper?'" 

Fattah capped off his portentous pep talk by announcing several promotions. But multiple witnesses have told me he failed to mention that he'd just informed Burhan Wazir, the well-respected editor of The National's seven-section weekend paper, that his job had been made redundant. Wazir and Fattah had been butting heads for months, sources said, and the government's press watchdog, the National Media Council, had complained about two stories in Wazir's latest Saturday edition, one a Nazareth travel feature and the other a profile of Israel's intelligence chief.

"Both pieces reflect, in my view, the fact that many of your editors still completely fail to understand in real terms where they are living," wrote Ibrahim Al Abed, director-general of the National Media Council, in a letter to Fattah obtained by The New Republic. "It is time that they came to recognise that what might be acceptable in newspapers elsewhere is not necessarily suitable for a UAE audience—or for a newspaper owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi." 

By mid-2011, as the Arab Spring was sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East, The National found itself operating in an even more delicate bubble. The paper's coverage of the uprisings was mixed—decent when it came to Syria and Libya, for example, but poor when it came to Bahrain, which is a close ally of the U.A.E. But overall, the toppling of regimes and fomenting of popular unrest throughout the region had a chilling effect on the U.A.E. The country began to crack down on dissent, racking up a growing collection of political prisoners (not that you'd read much about them in The National) and expelling prominent N.G.Os. The quixotic notion that Abu Dhabi could benefit from more openness, once The National's very reason for existing, no longer seemed to be a popular one.

"A lot of things have not gone Abu Dhabi's way," said Davidson, the Middle East scholar. "Back in 2007, The National was seen as icing on the cake. Now, the mood is down to primitive survival. They're building a police state, strengthening military alliances with super powers, creating the Iranian bogeyman and the Al Qaeda bogeyman, and just battening down the hatches." He added: "The paper's clearly not what it was intended to be. It's not getting the international readership they'd hoped for in the beginning and it doesn't have the revenue it was supposed to get."

When The National lifted off, Abu Dhabi Media gave it a five-year timeline for breaking out of the red while competing with eight other English titles in the U.A.E. The paper required "a minimum investment of $70 million" to launch, according to an early business plan provided to me by someone who received a copy of it. "The new English paper will have a leading position in the market, going beyond the mere facts and covering the UAE," reads the document, which projected $119 million in revenues by 2012. "The editorial quality should be obtained through quality of journalism."

Abu Dhabi Media did not respond to questions about The National's current financial outlook. But it seems to be one place where The National has followed the Western example more faithfully: Amidst belt-tightening in 2010 and 2011, freelance budgets were cut heavily, up to 70 percent in some cases. Last year, four weekday feature sections were killed (although the paper did launch a new suite of glossy luxury supplements). The newsroom head-count, depleted mostly through attrition, is down to roughly 200 from about 300 in early 2010, according to a person familiar with the inner workings of the paper. In its first year, The National was loaded with giveaway ads that have since been discontinued. As a result, what was once a 32-page A-section is frequently 18 pages and sometimes as thin as 12; other sections carry no ads at all. The company has not disclosed circulation figures since claiming 80,000 copies at launch, but the fact that it is still not audited suggests its print audience has decreased.

Online, had 519,000 visitors worldwide in January, down roughly 9 percent from a year earlier, according to the digital measurement firm comScore. By comparison, the website of The National's main competitor, Gulf News, had 848,000 global uniques in January and maintains an audited circulation of more than 100,000 for its daily Saturday through Thursday print edition.

On January 23, 2012, following a company-wide strategic review, Abu Dhabi Media divided the various film, television and publishing assets it owns into two separate operating categories—one for commercial gains and one for public service. The National was placed in the latter camp, the purpose of which is not to make money, but to "provide a public service for which the Nation can be proud," according to an internal memo from the C.E.O. at the time, Malcolm Wall. (He was replaced less than two months later by a new chief executive, Ayman Safadi, who also worked on the company review.)

In some ways, The National has lived up to that mandate. 

"The fact is, The National is probably one of the best, if not the best English-language newspaper in the Middle East," said Matt Duffy, an Arab-media researcher and journalism professor at Georgia State University who used to live and work in Abu Dhabi. (He also told me Fattah banned him from The National's building after he blogged about the paper's removal of an article on tourists in Abu Dhabi being arrested for taking photographs). "There has been a net positive for Abu Dhabi in that there's a newspaper providing the rudimentary services of the press." 

"The National may not be The New York Times, but it is The New York Times of the Middle East," a senior member of the newsroom agreed. "It's changed the media landscape here and made everyone else raise their game, and it's still significantly better than the other alternatives."

For Fattah's part, he acknowledges that The National is bound to a different set of standards than the eminent journalism institutions of the West. "We are not Americans writing about this place as Americans," he was quoted as saying in an Editor & Publisher article from last May. "Some have called us The New York Times of the east … but we are not The New York Times, and this is not New York. This place is not the developing world, but it's not the developed world. It’s a world in the middle."

Early last December, Fattah became the target of a shadowy Facebook page registered under the pseudonymous username Simon Kefauver. "We are a group of journalists at The National in Abu Dhabi and would like to introduce you to our campaign to force the resignation of our EIC [editor in chief] Hassan Fattah, who, we firmly state, has led the paper into oblivion and lied to numerous journalists along the way," read the mission statement. "It is a PR rag," snarled an anonymous commenter.

The person behind the site didn't respond to my inquiries. And given Abu Dhabi's governance structure, it's unclear why anyone would think a different editor might produce a more outspoken paper. Still, "I'm rooting for them," said Stout, the former copy editor, when I shared the link with him. "There are a lot of good people there who could put out a quality product if given the chance."

Davidson was less optimistic: "I reckon they'll eventually just put a lid on it," he said of The National. "I'd give it a year, if that."

Joe Pompeo is a media reporter for Capital New York.