Sunday, 18 July 2010

Moderate Saudi voices have found a home in the UAE

Over the last few years, an array of prominent Saudi intellectuals have come to call the UAE their home. As the midway point between the West and the East, the magnetic draw of the Emirates is understandable; it has become a cultural oasis for those who are intellectually hungry.

For instance, Abdul Rahman al Rashid currently presides over Al Arabiya in Dubai Media City as its general manager. Prior to his appointment by Sheikh Waleed Al Ibrahim of Saudi Arabia, he was known as the editor of the most-recognised Arabic newspaper, the London-based Asharq Al Awsat. The newspaper’s popularity was high during his era and he continues to publish widely read and influential pieces.

The Saudi columnist Dr Sulaiman al Hattlan is also a Dubai resident, as he was appointed in 2008 as the chief executive officer of the Arab Strategy Forum, which is akin to a Davos for social development in the Arab world. The institution’s Arab Knowledge Report 2009 is one of the few locally produced studies that examines the challenges of building knowledge-based economies in the region.

Dr al Hattlan also hosts Gulf Talks, a weekly talk show on the US-government sponsored Al Hurra news channel that examines the most important political and social issues in the Gulf. Although Al Hurra is widely regarded as having failed in its goal of providing an American perspective on global news to the region, Gulf Talks is known more than any other show to host controversial guests and free thinkers.

Additionally, Al Hurra airs Mosawaat or Equality, which is presented by the Saudi Arabian journalist Nadine al Budair. It discusses women’s rights in the Gulf and the Arab world, including taboo issues that many state-funded channels would shy away from tackling. Ms al Budair is also most recently known for a controversial article in which she called for women to be allowed the right to take multiple husbands.

Also in broadcast media is the presenter Turki al Dakhil, who has become as much a household name in the UAE as he is in Saudi Arabia. Mr al Dakhil presented a radio programme in Jeddah prior to moving to the UAE, where guests would call and air their grievances. It is widely believed that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was among the listeners of that extremely popular show. Today, Mr al Dakhil presents Ida’at, a courageous weekly debate programme on Al Arabiya that focuses on Gulf thinkers and intellectuals.

And although this is mere speculation on my part, it may be likely that the newly announced Fox News Arabic channel will be based in the UAE. Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the channel’s main backer, met Rupert Murdoch during the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in March this year, where it was announced that NewsCorp, which owns the news channel, would base its regional operations in the UAE capital.

The channel will be headed by Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist who is known for interviewing Osama bin Laden and his former post as editor-in-chief of Al Watan, the most influential newspaper in Saudi Arabia.

Also in the UAE resides Mansour al Nogaidan, the Saudi columnist behind Losing my Jihadism, a Washington Post article that I consider to be the most important column written about reform in Islam in the past decade.

Other noted Saudi voices on the Emirates scene include Dawood al Shiryan, a veteran journalist who presented the hugely successful Al Maqal, or The Article, on Dubai TV, as well as Dr Ismael Mohammed al Bishri, who previously held the title of chancellor of Sharjah University and who today serves as an appointed member of the Saudi Shura Council. Saudi researchers also occupy the halls of the Dubai School of Government: Dr Khalid al Yahya is a professor of public management and political economy, and Dr May al Dabbagh specialises in gender, social and cross-cultural psychology.

What makes the UAE experience feel like home to many of our neighbours from Saudi Arabia is that popular culture and official channels have both embraced them. It is not uncommon to walk into the majlis of a sheikh, minister or businessman and encounter these individuals, who have been invited, feted and honoured for their insights and intellect.

UAE society has both enriched these personalities and has been enriched by their presence. The media and academic platforms of the Emirates allows the moderate and informed voices of these Saudi intellectuals to reach not only the corners of the Arab world but also extend beyond our region.

Like other non-Emiratis, these individuals choose to be here because of the encouraging, fair and merit-based social environment that exists in the UAE. It is an environment that we need not only protect, but also to nourish and nurture.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 18th July 2010


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