INTERNATIONAL: MEDIUM OF THE MONTH - Al-Hayat, the top Arab daily title, is a respected survivor

By DAVID HIRST, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 14 March 1997 12:00AM

Few people in Britain might have heard of al-Hayat before the letter bombs went off in its West London headquarters.

Few people in Britain might have heard of al-Hayat before the

letter bombs went off in its West London headquarters.



But, for the Arabs, the explosions only underscored its standing as the

leading daily newspaper in the Middle East.



It is a product of the best and worst in the contemporary Arab

condition.



In a market where ’quality’ papers sell better than ’popular’ ones,

al-Hayat maintains a level of seriousness that puts its British

counterparts to shame. Before its civil war, Lebanon was the Arab

world’s one great bastion of press independence, and al-Hayat, still

predominantly Lebanese-staffed, is the best, if battered, survivor of

that tradition. However, in ownership, it has fallen, like so much else,

to the dominance of cash-rich Saudi Arabia.



Like other Arab publications, al-Hayat waited for democratising

upheavals to set the written word free. When they did not happen it fled

into European exile.



Al-Hayat was founded in Beirut in 1945 by Kamel Mroue, a Shi’ite Muslim

who so challenged the revolutionary doctrines of the time that he was

assassinated in 1966. After more violence his widow closed the paper

down in 1976. Revived by his son Jamil in 1988, it quickly became the

first truly pan-Arab newspaper. This could only have been achieved from

a non-Arab base such as London and by using new technology. Printing

simultaneously in Beirut, Cairo, Bahrain, Frankfurt and New York, the

paper achieves same-day distribution in 17 of 21 Arab countries, and a

score of others.



Its eight pages of Arab and international news and commentary are the

fullest and most professional to be found. ’If you are going to read one

Arab paper,’ an Oxford-based Palestinian researcher says, ’it must be

al-Hayat. But there are serious gaps you can only fill from others.’ Its

main weakness is its inability to report on Saudi Arabia as seriously as

it does on other countries.



In its other key role - as a pan-Arab debating forum - leading

opinion-makers address each other with a resonance never before achieved

in today’s fragmented Arabic-speaking world. On a typical day, 14

February 1997, its pages headed Issues, Ideas, Culture and Arts and

Heritage featured such items as a treatise on the Arab-Israeli

’multilateral talks’, a review of a new edition of the Thousand and One

Nights, a poet’s St Valentine’s Day lament on the passing of traditional

ways, and an enquiry into who is responsible for the plunder of Iraqi

antiquities.



David Hirst is the Middle East correspondent of the Guardian.



FACT FILE

Circulation

120,000 (its own, unaudited, estimate)

Owner

Khalid bin Sultan, son of the Saudi defence minister

Main rival

Al-Sharq al-Aswat



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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