Is “The Independent Arabia” Really Independent?

A Saudi Campaign to Control British and Arabian Journals · When an Arabian website is sponsored by a prestigious British daily like The Independent, one would expect high quality and rigorously professional journalism. Actually, however, it is a propaganda tool of the Saudi regime, which suffers from its lack of legitimacy.

What do we get by mixing Saudi money, strongly suspected of being public funds, with a young Saudi journalist full of “enthusiasm” for Crown Prince Mohamed Ben Salman, and with a seasoned Lebanese journalist—who is also a member of the Christian-based party Lebanese Forces, and a long-time advisor to its leader before turning to the audiovisual media and setting up news sites sponsored by the American occupation in Iraq? Add to these ingredients a female Egyptian journalist well-known to be a supporter of the Saudi power structure, as well as editorialists like Walid Phares, an advisor on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, not to mention the daughter of the ousted Shah of Iran. What do we get? The Independent Arabia.

Launched at the beginning of this year, the new website is the Arabic version of the famous British daily, the rights for which have been acquired by billionaire Soltan Mohamed Abuljadayel, suspected of having connections with publicly owned banks in Saudi Arabia.1

Over and above the polemics touched off by the Saudi acquisition of British media and news companies, how is it imaginable that with all the ingredients listed above the celebrated British daily could possibly retain its original qualities? In other words, can The Independent Arabia really be . . . independent? The issue was first raised by The Guardian in an article which questioned the editorial policy of these new websites, considering their links with Saudi Arabia. Another article posted on the website Middle East Eye mentions that the purchase by a Saudi investor of one third of its shares, “raises fears about the journal’s independence.”

Another question: why does Saudi Arabia want to acquire another publication when the country already owns dozens, nay hundreds of titles in various languages? The Independent is not the first Western media to make a deal with a Saudi group. Already last year Bloomberg signed a ten year contract with The Saudi Research and Marketing Group with an eye to broadcasting the Bloomberg and SkyNews channels in Arabic. Moreover, The Guardian reported that the Britsh Minister of Culture planned to initiate an investigation into the financing of British websites in partnership with the Saudi investor Soltan Mohamed Abouljadayel, considerng the latter’s financial connections with the armed forces of the royal power structure. The final decision will be taken at the end of June 2019.

When a British daily sells its soul

But before going into detail, let us look at the chronology of this affair. After the suspension of the paper edition of The Independent in 2016 and it’s complete digital conversion, ASA Media Ltd who owned the publication, sold the license to another group, Johnston Press. It is thought that the latter then sold a third of its shares to the Saudi billionaire Soltan Mohamed Abouljadayel. Soon after that it was learned that the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, which among other media owns the Arab language pro-governmental paper Asharq al-Aswat, had obtained a franchise to circulate the digital journal in four languages: Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Urdu.2

Then why The Independent? The answer no doubt lies mainly in the country’s need to enhance its credibility. The history of the Wahhabi kingdom’s relationship with the media it owns or finances is such that many readers see what they produce as propaganda rather than news, and certainly do not see them as purveyors of independent news. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is certainly not confined to the Saudi media but has spread during the last decade to all the media of the Arab world with very few exceptions and has grown even more pronounced with the increasing polarisation of the region between the pro-American axis and the pro-Iranian one.

This policy of appropriating media is not a new one for the Kingdom which has been investing its petrodollars to this end since the sixties. And in fact the Arabic press has for many years thrived on the economic boom in the oil-producing countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, above all during the last three decades. Thus the Saudi appetite for acquiring or financing Arabic media (mainly in Egypt but also in Lebanon) has, since the eighties and nineties, grown apace with a foreign policy aimed at intervening decisively in the affairs of other Arab countries.

What professional standards?

Little by little, subject as they are to governmental orientations which have no use for professional standards, these media have lost all credibility. As for the newspapers, like Asharq al-Awsat, which are still read by a traditional audience, they are no longer in tune with the country’s youth, focused more on digital media and who constitute the priority of the Kingdom’s real ruler, Mohamed Ben Salman.

Besides which, when we think of the extremely brutal murder of the [journalist Jamal Khashoggi- 3166] on the premises of his country’s consulate in Istanbul last year, or such “episodes” as the detention and blackmail of Saudi princes and businessmen in Riyadh’s Hotel Riz, or the scandalous kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, forced to tender his resignation from the Saudi capital, all of which created a disastrous image in the region and the world, we may better understand this strategy of resorting to The Independent, a Western title with an appreciable reputation for professionalism. It is a logical move in the minds of the Saudis, who assume that anything can be bought.

A slightly different interpretation is offered by a Saudi communications expert, who prefers to remain anonymous and who points out that the plan to acquire The Independent dates from “long before the Khashoggi murder, Riyadh having felt the need to address the Arab world differently, in new media formats. They wanted to have a credible news site according to international professional norms, varied, less one-sided and less aggressive, able to explore new markets of political communication, profiting by the expertise of the British paper. The Independent having announced that it would supervise the substance of the four editions in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu, in both form and content.” And our expert adds: “The languages selected are a clear indication of the markets targeted by Arabia to extend its influence.”

This being the case, we may well wonder whether the Saudi regime, rather than trying to improve the quality of its media in the interests of readers, is simply trying to give them a clean bill of health, restore the image of its political communication? In other words, manipulating public opinion in subtler ways in those regions where it has the pretension of playing a political role?

A biased editorial staff

Adwane Al-Ahmari is a young Saudi journalist who began his career in 2002 with the journal Al-Watan before going to work for Al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat. He has also been a correspondent for the satellite channel Orbit, broadcasting from Riyadh, and for the TV channel Rotana Khalijiya, the personal property of Prince Al-Walid Ben Talal. In journalistic circles, he is known as “Mohamed Ben Salman’s mouthpiece” so fervent is his support for the Crown Prince, whose achievements he never fails to celebrate via his Twitter account, however trivial they may be.

Though it was no doubt “normal” for the entourage of Mohamed Ben Salman to choose this man as managing editor of the Arabic website, the choice of the rest of the staff raised questions regarding its general orientation. This is especially true in the case of the Lebanese journalist, Amjad Iskandar, appointed to head the Beyrouth office. A member of the Lebanese Forces party, he began his career in 1983 as a correspondent for the review Al-Masira, the party’s official organ, before being appointed to head its media service. In 1985, he became anchorman for the newscast on Radio Liban Libre which also belonged to his party, then worked as a war correspondent during the Iran-Iraq conflict. Next he presented the news on channel LBC (also created by the Lebanese Forces in 1985) and coordinated the launching of Radio Iraq under the terms of a contract between LBC and the Iraqi Media Committee, a body run by the American occupation authorities to train and indoctrinate journalists working for Al-Irakiya, Radio Irak and others.

Mona Madkour’s profile is similar. This Egyptian journalist has worked for many Gulf newspapers and websites. Described as “a journalist of Egypt and the Gulf” she is known for her proximity with the power structure and was appointed head of the Cairo office.

The Beyrouth office had no qualms about recruiting members or sympathizers of the Lebanese Forces party or better still the March 14 Alliance known for its close ties with Saudi Arabia, or technicians having worked for many years in the Gulf countries press. Under these conditions it is hard to imagine anything resembling media neutrality, especially considering the political and ideological polarisation which has held sway in the region for some time now between the Iranian press and that of its allies, on the one hand, and that of the United States, the Gulf countries and their respective allies on the other.

Although a source well informed about the Arabic website has told us that it is doing its best to respect international norms of professionalism and a certain neutrality,” insofar as possible”, these efforts seem focused on dossiers located far from the Kingdom, such as the situation in Algeria. This selective neutrality actually reveals a complete lack of objectivity regarding the other dossiers. Concerning Sudan, for example, we observe a bias in favour of the Military Council, closely linked with the Sudanese power structure, whereas on the website’s English version, journalist Robert Fisk signed a feature denouncing the Saudi and EAU support of a military junta guilty of massacring sit-in demonstrators.

We asked Zahira Harb, lecturer in international journalism at London University, to observe the contents of the Arabic edition of The Independent over a certain period of time. Her conclusion is that “the website may from time to time post articles which are well put together and are worth reading, such as its coverage of events in Gaza. But in general there is a marked tendency to adopt the Saudi position in the treatment of the news. Certainly, this is less obvious than on the Saudi TV channel Al-Arabiya, but it remains quite perceptible.” Zahira Harb also draws our attention to the “complete alignment with Saudi positions, clearly evinced in the contributions to the “Opinions” column by Walid Phares.3 from Wahington”. As for a comparison between the Arabic and English editions, Harb explains: “In its form, the Arabic version resembles up to a point the English version but not at all in content. All the more so when an article deals with a political content connected with countries or governments whose project and rhetoric adhere closely to those of Saudi Arabia.”

The Independent Arabia began with an interview with the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Bandar Ben Sultan, posted in 5 very long sections of 50,000 words each. As was ironically pointed out in comments on the social networks, the interviewer “was a good listener” passively accepting his guest’s digressions with no real discussion. Other observers point out that this kick-off was a way for the website to lay its cards on the table and show that Bandar plays a crucial role in Saudi policy-making today, notably in foreign affairs and first and foremost in its relations with the United States.

Iran! There’s the enemy!

But what reveals the true nature of the website’s professional practices is its treatment of the Iranian dossier. In this area, the reader needn’t make the effort of a close reading, we need only skim the pages. Indeed, since its very inception The Independent Arabia has constantly published interviews with Iranian opposition figures like the attorney Shirin Ebadi and the former Iranian president Bani Sadra, making no effort to offset their rhetoric with interviews of people on the other side. Similarly, the website has published articles by the daughter of the last shah, Noor Pahlavi, in which she addresses Iranian women. It has also invited contributions to its “Opinions” column from individuals like Walid Phares.

Finally, in its coverage of the attacks against tankers in the Ormuz Straits or the last three summit meetings organized in the Mecca towards the end of last May, The Independent Arabia left no doubt about it: Iran is the main enemy.

The translation of articles posted on the English website is no doubt faithful, but on what criteria are they selected? And exactly who makes the selection? Can the Arabic-speaking reader hope to read Robert Fisk’s article on the massacre in Sudan referred to above, published on the English website and revealing the Saudi and Emirati connections with the Sudanese Military Council?

Another point which may have its importance: it is an easy matter when browsing through the Arabic website to see which articles have been translated from the English and which have been written directly in Arabic, not only because of the copyright credits at the end but above all because of the difference in quality and professionalism.

Which can only strengthen our impression of a flagrant disparity between the performances of “colleagues” working under the same title. This shows the extent to which the control that the English site promised to exercise over the Arabic edition has slackened, to say the least, has in fact become purely formal.

This “slackening” may be connected with the current polemics on the British media scene. In other words, as one observer has maliciously remarked, the reason behind this negligence may be deliberately to leave the Arabic edition open to criticism for its non-respect of the code of conduct governing the British press, in view of legal action to be taken against the Arabic version. Only time will tell.

It was surprising to discover that most of our fellow journalists in Beyrouth whom we questioned about The Independent Arabia, had never heard of it! Those who browsed through the website found it “superficial”. As for those who read it more carefully, they were of the opinion that it has not thus far managed to post a single in-depth analysis or article of real quality, contenting itself with a coverage of current events.

Zahira Harb’s judgement is quite similar. We asked her if she thought The Independent Arabia, six months after its creation, was capable of making a positive contribution to the community of Arabic news sites on the Internet. Her answer was a resounding “no,” especially considering the number of websites visited by Arabic-speakers. Until now and, generally speaking, the news sites run by the Arabic TV channels, or which broadcast in that language like BBC Arabic, are still the most frequently consulted, according to opinion polls.

1The Financial Times has published the details of the sale of 30% of the shares of The Independent and The Evening Standard to this Saudi investor. It also reported that the British government seriously considered putting a stop to the transaction in the name of “the common good.”And that Solran Mohamed Abouladayel has ties with NCB Capital, the investment branch of the Saudi National Commercial Bank, in which the government is the principal shareholder.

2According to a press release from The Independent, dated 20 July 2019.

3W. Phares is an academic who acted as advisor on foreign affairs to Donald Trump in 2016 after having been an advisor on national security to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. At present he is a co-secretary general of the Transatlantic Legislative Group and an analyst on national security for Fox News.