A newspaper literally consists of ink and paper; the inks come from dyes and the paper from wood pulp. If a newspaper comes alive for its readers and becomes a trusted friend, it is because there is an editor who understands how to breathe life into it and make it a living, vibrant thing. In my years at Arab News, I have heard many times from many different readers that Arab News is such a creature — more than ink and paper — a trusted friend. We can all thank Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena for bringing Arab News to life. He is a tireless champion for the truth and for Saudi Arabia, a tolerant man who preaches tolerance and loves to debate those with opposing views, a friend to both the poor and the powerful, but, first and foremost, a newspaperman.
To him, each reader is more than a valued customer; each reader is a one-man or one-woman opinion poll, and each reader will get the best possible newspaper seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. His is a tough job that requires a mix of a passion for good writing and photography and a quest for perfection — all for each and every reader of Arab News. He is unsparing in his criticism of editors who commit mistakes and let typos in. Everybody dreads it when he is poring over the pages at 10:30 p.m., not too long before press time.
“His eyes take him straight to the mistake,” rues one senior editor. His command of Urdu stands him in good stead when he is unleashing those four-letter words at the Subcontinentalwallahs who “write in pidgin English and commit horrible mistakes.”
The other thing that is like a red flag to him is bland headlines.
“Don’t write so-and-so visits such and such place... Give me a quote in the headline,” he screams and yells depending on what mood he is in on a particular night. He is a hands-on editor in chief. His is an open-door policy. You can just barge into his room and discuss anything, but he doesn’t suffer fools lightly; though, he has never mustered the courage to say no to anybody. And he always treats his readers as kings. He has never left a reader’s e-mail unanswered, and quite often you will see him picking up a phone to call an odd reader to know about his or her opinion about the newspaper.
On many occasions when he liked a particular article from foreign publications, he will immediately write to them if the e-mail address of the author is available. He loves interaction and is always open to suggestions. He is particularly fascinated by young writers and personally ensures that their stories are there in the newspaper.
For him, Arab News is a passion. He lives it. He breathes it. And he gets mad when anyone messes with it. If you have been an editor in chief for more than 25 years of a newspaper that turns 35 on April 20, 2010, what else could you expect?
Know the Competition
On Jan. 8, 2004, a cool Thursday afternoon, Arab News staffers were greeted with an important e-mail from their editor in chief. It contained a 33-page article titled “The Kingdom of Silence.” On top in a bold font was written: “Interesting and a must-read. — KA.” The word “MUST” was in all capitals for emphasis. Nearly 30,000 words later the editors indeed found it to be a very interesting article written by Lawrence Wright for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. The article dealt with Wright’s three-month experience in early 2003 at our immediate English-language competitor, The Saudi Gazette, where he was hired to train young Saudi reporters.
The job offered him a way of getting into the Kingdom after more than a year of, what he described as, “fruitless attempts to get a visa as a journalist.” Wright described in delightful details about the inner workings of an organization that we take on, day-in and day-out in thousands of newsstands spread across the Kingdom. It gave the editors a valuable insight into how Arab News was being perceived in the opposition camp. This was always a mystery to the editors, and Wright was unraveling it for them.
Later that evening, Almaeena acknowledged The Saudi Gazette is a good newspaper. “Don’t underestimate the competition,” he told his staff. “I want you to know full well who you are dealing with. Wright has given us good clues. This will help us build on the empirical data that we have on our competitor. Newspapers are a 24/7 ball game and a little complacency can prove disastrous,” he said with an air of firm authority.
The next day on the bulletin board, he wrote with his favorite blue marker and in his inimitable long hand: “Let’s push the opposition to No. 3.” The message from the head honcho was clear: We just can’t lower our guard. The leader has to guard the reader.
‘The Green Truth’
He loves corporate battles. And when he is battling for Arab News — “the Green Truth,” as he calls it — he is at his warrior best.
When he came back to Arab News on March 1, 1998, for his second stint as the editor in chief of the newspaper, he had made his intentions loud and clear.
“You will see many changes in the newspaper in the next few years,” he wrote in the front-page editorial that became the guiding light for the new millennium. “There are new parameters of relevance needed, new influences on our lives to be addressed. As readership interests shift, and loyalties fluctuate even faster, we need new tools to track and respond. The print media could very well be one of the losers in the next century if it doesn’t respond to this challenge. It is, therefore, clear to all of us at Arab News: Get with it or get out of it.” That set the tone for his second inning.
If his enduring legacy in the first tenure (1982-1993) was the introduction or expansion of the Letters to the Editor column, his second term will go down in the annals of Arab News history as a period of Glasnost and Perestroika — a period in which he introduced to Arab News readers a combination of brilliant young and old, men and women, Saudi and Arab writers and columnists who discussed issues that were only a few years ago considered taboo.
Bridging the Gap
“In the chaotic world of post-Sept. 11, everything had turned upside down,” he said. “There was ignorance all around. Arab News found itself in a unique position to counter the attack on Islam with a series of brilliant essays by some of the top Saudi writers. We threw our doors open to our counterparts from the United States and all the Western countries. At times, the Arab News newsroom resembled one big railway platform where people alighted and boarded trains at the same time.” He himself wrote extensively in his bid to bridge the gap between Saudi Arabia and the United States. “I love batting for my country,” he would repeat ad nauseam.
“We all need to get rid of this scourge of terrorism,” Almaeena wrote in one celebrated article. As “we stood together in the fight against Communism and the fight against Saddam’s naked aggression, we need to stand together in this fight against terrorism. The worst thing about terrorism is that you don’t see the enemy: He is invisible. That makes the fight against terror all the more difficult. We need all our wits about us; we need every help we can get. This requires patience and understanding; tanks and machine guns are important but so is the marshaling of human resources against this menace. As somebody rightly pointed out, with extremism, radicalization, terrorism and militancy — as with the Death Star — you have to get straight to the core. And the core is not killing or arresting those terrorists. They are just the leaves on the tree. The core is the hearts and minds of the people of the Muslim world.”
When we were being blasted with hate mail, he immediately set up a task force to reply to those e-mails and to try to convince those people against abusing Islam and Muslims. He himself engaged them in dialogue and, on many occasions, won their hearts with his logic and reason.
He is also passionate about India and Pakistan, and this is reflected in the newspaper. This passion may be because of his education in India and Pakistan in his early years. When something goes wrong in those two countries, he picks up the pen immediately. In this day and age he still writes in long hand. And he loves cricket. When the two archrivals decided to resume cricketing ties in 2004, he sent our seniormost editor, L. Ramnarayan, to cover the matches in Pakistan. Ram’s selection was not without reason. Ram became the first non-Muslim to represent a Saudi newspaper in Pakistan. That was a coup of sorts and created quite a flutter.
“The idea was to promote ties between the two countries. There was no one better than Ram to do justice to the cricket series,” he recalled later. And Ram lived up to his reputation as a delectable sports writer. His diaries became a rage, and he came back with great memories of Lahore and Multan and Islamabad.
The Leader Guards the Reader
Whether you’re from Makati or Piccadilly, from Bali or Bombay, Sharafiya or Bani Malik, Karachi or Kala Bagh, or Jeddah or Japan makes no difference — they all are important to Arab News. From laborers to business leaders, from housewives to historians, all will always be No. 1 at Arab News. You can thank the editor in chief for that. In his view, his “Green Truth” is your “Green Truth.”