Othman Al Omeir: A pioneering Voyage by Adel Darwish*
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When British Biologists at Roslin Institute in Scotland introduced Dolly the sheep, proving that mammals could be cloned in February 1997, Othman Al- Omeir broke with the tradition of Arabic language media and splashed the story on eight columns as a front-page lead of the prestigious Asharq-Al-Awsat. It was an audacious editorial revolt. It challenged the unwritten ethical code set by the influential Muslim scholars against hailing “ungodly” scientific experiments; it also departed from Arabic papers traditions pf leading with the head of the state activities.
Although the 1978 launched Asharq Al-Awsat was a leading international Arabic language printed in several centres world-wide, it was associated with Saudi Arabia and its Saudi publishers. When Al-Omeir became its first Saudi born editor in 1987, he surprised media observers by not following Arabic editors tradition in toeing the official line. He irritated the officialdom by showing great independence. Within weeks of moving from his three years editing the weekly Al-Majalla to Asharq Al-Awsat he arranged a long-term sharing syndication service with the newly launched The Independent, Fleet Street first independent daily published by the journalists themselves, and with The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Two years later, Al Omeir launched a Sunday edition of Asharq Al-Awsat and signed a syndication deal with The Sunday Times and The Observer.
Those deals provide his broad readership with translated reports and features by the Crème de la crème of the Anglosaxon reporters and writers. In exchange, foreign news desks, especially the London Independent, benefitted from Asharq Al-Awsat Arabic speaking reporters’ first-hand account on the ground. Always believing in cross-culture sharing of knowledge and information, Al Omeir invited big names to contribute columns and features to his pages. Among them former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Senator George Mitchell of the Northern Ireland peace fame, and the American commentator Thomas Freedman. The latter’s contribution was his gateway to visit Saudi Arabia and interviewing the then Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz (1924-2015), throwing light on the latter’s ideas of a comprehensive settlement for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Long before Abdullah IV became the Kingdom’s sixth king (2005-2015), Al Omeir had interviewed him as a crown prince.
A courtier was surprised by Al-Omeir “western line of questioning Arb leaders”, still alien to regional reporters. But Al-Omeir, to the envy of many journalists, was a seasoned reporter who interviewed leaders like lady Thatcher (1925-2013), and Prime Minister John Major at Downing Street, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1930-2017), President Jacques Chirac (1932-2019), President Mikhail Gorbachev, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia (1921-2005), President George Bush Snr (1924-2018), King Hussein of Jordan (1935-1999). He interviewed leaders of Gulf states, China, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and many more, published in two books. He also penned the introduction to the Arabic edition of lady Thatcher’s memoir and edited and prefacing his late friend King Hassan II of morocco(1929-1999) memoir.
His next pioneering project was the first Arabic online daily combining newspaper and website concepts, Elaph, meaning solidarity, in 2001, attracting liberal-minded, democratic and free-thinking writers. Since Elaph has been and remains committed to totally free speech, its readership overtook the widest circulation pan-Arab dailies within three years. Despite being repeatedly blocked by several Arab governments, including in his birthplace, Saudi Arabia, in the first 10 years of its life, Elaph became the most widely read Arabic daily, as certified by The Audit Bureau of Circulation of 1.8 Million visitors, even after the scores of other big names launched their websites. Elaph, which was given the Artistic Creativity Award by the Arab Thought Foundation in 2007, was reported by Forbes in 2012 as the tenth most visited daily website among hundreds in the Arab world.
Described as a champion of free expression and one of the most influential journalists in the middle east, the dual British Saudi national Al Omeir was named as the Media Personality of 2006 by the Arab Media Forum “for his contribution to the industry in the Arab World”; and in 2009 he was awarded The New Media Future Prize by the Anna Lindh Foundation. Al Omeir continued to innovate in media with pioneering projects, especially in the multilingual field.
In 1991 he initiated a partnership in OR media producing the first comprehensive documentary on the first Gulf War and continued providing documentaries for the Middle East, Britain and the Americas.
In 2004 he became the publisher in control of the oldest newspaper group in Morocco, Maroc Soir group in Casablanca, earning him the amusing title “The Murdoch of The Middle East”, ironically in a magazine he edited 20 years earlier.
However, adding the group, which published The French Maroc Soir and Le Matin, the Arabic Assahra Al-Maghribiya, and the English Morocco Times newspapers to Elaph and OR Media was another milestone on his multilingual multi-cultural media journey. Al Omeir played a more prominent role in modernising political thinking in the region. As a chairman of the Dubai based board of directors of Strategic Communications Group, he proved to be one of the most influential strategic thinkers in the Middle East region.
He often played the unofficial but pertinent role of special envoy and messenger between several East and West leaders. You can have a glimpse of this little-known part of his contribution to forging a better understanding, cooperation and working for peace If you attend Al Omeir power -lunches or dinner-discussions with former and present senators, British, American and European parliamentarians, top commentators and working diplomats. In the last dinner I attended before the covid-19 spring 2020 isolation, Al Omeir hosted a minister, American senators, two MPs, and top British, European and Arab diplomats and journalists comprising six different nationalities. His London abode’s location is symbolically telling the story of his career and its multi-faceted aspirations. A penthouse overlooking the iconic Saint Clements church on Strand, the law courts, with one balcony overlooking Fleet Street where he started 40 years earlier, another, on a clear day, gives a view all the way to Whitehall and the top of The Palace of Westminster. Another location of his ongoing contact and work where he frequently visits friends in the House of Commons, linking politics with peace and journalism. His office and apartment are like a modern gallery exhibiting classic arts, paintings, and vintage photographs of American and British newsrooms, rare books, and manuscripts. He is a classical music fan with good taste and encyclopaedic knowledge, and a great collection of records. In a small dinner party he gave to visiting middle-age German couple Wagner was playing in the background; he corrected the visitors dating of the piece. His popularity and endless calls make it difficult to escape to the world of his beloved classical music when in his library-like living room by the Strand, so he escapes, when he can, to Ammoun of London. Ammoun, a 2000 built 31-meter yacht, is his summer retreat for short holidays where he can really relax, either listen to classical music or watch football on TV but mostly gather his thoughts to think of a next journalistic and media project. Ammoun affords him the privacy he never experiences in a resort, where he can work too. Ammoun is not his first yacht; he had smaller ones before it as he loves the sea, although the time he spends sailing is limited geographically to the Mediterranean between the southern French coast, Spain, and Morocco, just a few days in between engagements. But there are more open leagues to explore on the Odyssey, which he started since he became the youngest Saudi editor of a major daily, Al-Yum, in 1980. Even in his sixth decade, Al-Omeir was adding video and multimedia service EMM to Elpah in 2012, and in 2019 he was in negotiation with a European consortium to launch an English version of Elaph hosting British politicians’ intellectual writings and to be expanded to two other languages for international readers. Unfortunately, with Covid-19 pandemic hitting Europe, the project was put on ice for the time being. But there is more to come from this unstoppable captain of letters and headlines.
*Adel Alexander Darwish is a veteran Fleet Street journalist and, for two decades, a member of Westminster Lobby and House of Commons Press Gallery.