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Saudi and Abu Dhabi in naval skirmish, newspapers in denial 1, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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This article was published in the Daily News Egypt on 31st March 2010


Last week there was a minor naval altercation between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. In the incident it is reported that gunfire was exchanged, the crew of a Saudi patrol boat was taken into Emirati custody, two having been injured, but all were released within days.

Whilst the specific precipitant is unknown, it appears that the incident took place in waters that both sides claim. Despite Abu Dhabi being arguably the richest city on earth and Saudi Arabia having gargantuan oil reserves, neither is willing to give an inch of land under which there may be energy deposits. Furthermore, Saudi seemingly classes this tract of water as strategically important. When Qatar wanted to build the Dolphin pipeline to pipe gas to the Emirates and on to Oman, Saudi Arabia objected saying that its agreement was needed as the pipe would traverse Saudi territory. However, these objections were ignored and the pipe constructed.

Practically all reports of this incident seem to stem from one Daily Telegraph article so drawing firm conclusions is difficult. Yet given that only one Saudi patrol boat was involved and that the sailors were handed back so quickly, it seems likely that this incident is simply a ‘game’ of harassment gone awry; rather like the routine and illegal entry of Russian bombers into British airspace, revealed last week, which so far has not produced similarly accidental but nevertheless dangerous results.

If either side chooses to not to forget this incident and retaliate there are numerous potential international ramifications. Both Saudi and the Emirates are stalwart US allies in the Gulf, receiving access to the highest grade of US weaponry and even to civilian nuclear technology, in Abu Dhabi’s case. Moreover, both countries are theoretically vital parts of the American inspired putative united front against Iran, designed to present a cohesive and consistent front to pressure the Tehran regime.

Either which way, this incident is the very definition of a newsworthy story. It involved a military skirmish, casualties, capture, release, surprise, tension and it all happened in one of the most highly covered and analyzed regions on earth. Yet, there has been practically nothing from local newspapers and precious little internationally.

With respect, this is not overly surprising in Saudi Arabia’s case, for their indigenous newspaper industry is not known for its transparency and freedom; quite the opposite. But Abu Dhabi’s The National was supposed to be different.

Established in April 2008 to much fan-fare, The National recruited top–class journalists from the UK and America along with an editor — Martin Newland — with a strong reputation from Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. Moreover, The National was set up with a firm pledge to introduce Western newspaper standards to ”help society evolve”.

Today, The National has some excellent coverage of international issues and is clearly the best written newspaper in the Gulf. It is both surprising and disappointing, therefore, that a detailed search of their archive reveals that they appear not to have written a word on the topic.

To an extent, this is not surprising. Military matters are always among the first ‘red lines’ for newspapers to consider in this region, let alone in an incident with a supposed friendly country. This is also not the first time that The National has taken an apparently politically motivated stance. In January, ‘The Doha Debates’, a Qatar based BBC World discussion show with questions from a live studio audience, debated the topic “Is Dubai a bad idea?” The National, however, refused to advertise the Debate and continues this policy to date.

This decision, like the one not to run the Saudi-Abu Dhabi boat skirmish story, cannot be justified on editorial grounds alone: both are interesting and topical stories that unquestionably would have significant public interest. Even if the incident is not at all what it appears to be, which is entirely possible, it is still worth a clarification piece.

On both occasions The National’s editors or those deciding to block publication (if that is what happened) of these stories, have misjudged the situation. In the case of the Doha Debates, the Qatari audience decided that in fact Dubai was a good idea. This could have been correctly portrayed as a popular, democratic defense of Dubai at a time when Dubai sorely needed a good news story.

As for the Naval skirmish, given the number of ties between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia — the most galvanizing of which being their mutual distrust and fear of Iran — the chances of this escalating seriously are slim. In the open, discussed and debated this could have been an opportunity to acknowledge some minor operational mistakes, announce renewed efforts to resolve the boundary issue and reaffirm their brotherly ties. After all, make no mistake: this story will have spread like wildfire through the region’s Majlis, so it is certainly not as if The National is preventing this information for getting to the public. Instead, with Ministries issuing ‘no comment’ statements and The National blissfully ignoring it, speculation continues and all concerned run the risk that a relatively minor issue takes on a more insidious, rumor-filled life of its own.

The National refuses to advertise Doha Debates 14, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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The Abu Dhabi based newspaper The National has refused to advertise a recent episode of the Qatar based Doha Debates. The motion debated in the show was ‘Is Dubai a bad idea?’ The key irony here is, of course, that the audience voted strongly (62%) that Dubai was not a bad idea, showing considerable regional support. Yet, in the wake of Dubai’s humiliation of having their towering, crowning glory the Burj Dubai forcibly renamed the Burj Khalifah, they presumably did not want to have the appearance of gloating or further angering intra-Emirate feelings.

Dubai metro’s success 16, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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Metro airport

One the first day that the new Dubai metro was open to the public, last Thursday, some 67,000 people had given it a whirl. According to the UAE daily, The National, by Saturday night the total number reached 178,000 despite a few teething issues like delays and huge queues to get into some stations.

Many of the commuters on these trains were attracted by the novelty value of hopping aboard the Gulf’s first metro system. It remains to be seen, however, just how many will eschew their 4x4s and actually commute using the system. I’d tentatively suggest that the metro will become something of an ex-pat only zone with Emiratees unwilling to forgo the door-to-door advantage of their air conditioned cars. Only time…

Abu Dhabi paper’s editor quits 8, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Media in the ME, The Emirates.
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The Abu Dhabi daily newspaper, the National, has confirmed that its editor Martin Newland has stepped down and his former deputy Hassan Fattah will take his place. This is undoubtedly a blow for the credibility of the paper. Newland was installed originally with much fanfare in April 2008 and brought with him a number of journalists from the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph. Once he arrived and took up the reins he proceeded to scour much of the Western world for journalists to fill the places to meet the size and circulation requirements.

One of the key sticking points of this venture was always going to be press freedom. Whilst Newland always maintained that he was not there to launch a crusade for media freedom, he nevertheless maintained that he would bring Western standards of journalism to Abu Dhabi. Government press releases, for example, were no longer to be simply copied out as the lead story with little to no context or criticism.

However, these have been exceedingly trying times for Abu Dhabi. The torture issue involving the half brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the mooted introduction of the new Emirati media law giving the authorities power over the hiring and firing of journalists as well as punishing journalists who write ‘disparaging’ comments that may harm the country’s economy, hint that the country is heading down a decidedly authoritarian path. Whether these were the precipitants of Newland’s resignation or not remains, however, to be seen.

t. But it will continue to punish journalists for such infractions as “disparaging” government officials or publishing “misleading” news that “harms the country’s economy.”

Article catch up 19, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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A few days away from the Internet leaves a veritable mountain to sift through when returning, hence a list of interesting articles over that last few days that I don’t quite have the time to write about in a more extended fashion:

  • Greg Gause’s excellent article at the National about the GCC, Iran and US relationship. Summary articles don’t come any better than this.
  • Nye in the Egypt Daily News on America’s apparent reconsideration of its democracy promotion campaign.
  • Stratfor on the limited success of Saudi’s de-radicalization programme.
  • Greg Gause on Marc Lynch’s Foreign Policy blog on the Kuwait elections. Positive as it may well be to have four women elected to parliament, which it indeed is, it does not solve the underlying problems in the country’s system.
  • A probably spurious article on Iranian Press TV about the oppression of Saudi’s Shias and their (very) alleged declaration of ‘The Republic of Eastern Arabia’
  • A good NYT article discussing Norway’s distinctive character and its sovereign wealth fund that has led it to succeed in today’s troubled financial times. Hat Tip: Emirates Economist.