It was a 24-hour job. Peo­ple would come to my house, say­ing that their spon­sor hadn’t paid their money or the po­lice had done this or that.

Arab News - - ARAB MEDIA FORUM -

rights … for jus­tice, and those who are not priv­i­leged. We fought hard for la­bor rights, women’s rights,” he said.

Un­der Al­maeena’s watch, the pa­per de­vel­oped strong ties with its read­ers, some­times fight­ing causes on their be­half — in­clud­ing cases where peo­ple were wrongly sent to jail.

“It was a 24-hour job,” the for­mer edi­tor said dur­ing an ear­lier in­ter­view in Jed­dah’s Amara Café.

“Peo­ple would come to my house, say­ing that their spon­sor hadn’t paid their money (or) the po­lice had done this or that.”

The vet­eran Saudi jour­nal­ist is not known for a short­age of col­or­ful anec­dotes, and they come es­pe­cially freely as he talks through the sig­nif­i­cance of Arab News’ an­niver­sary.

“It has suc­ceeded, it has sur­vived, it has grown,” Al­maeena said of the news­pa­per. “De­spite the many chal­lenges that we went through, it has been able to make its mark.”

Over black cof­fee — the sta­ple liq­uid sus­te­nance of many a jour­nal­ist — Al­maeena ex­plained how queues of peo­ple used to form out­side the news­pa­per’s of­fices and those of its own­ers.

The daily was nick­named “The Green Truth” — partly due to the green wash of its front page — and its top man was dubbed the “Peo­ple’s Edi­tor.”

Al­maeena reels off sev­eral ex­am­ples of why such a ti­tle was fit­ting. Many years ago, an Asian man con­tacted him in a des­per­ate state.

“He said to me that if I didn’t see him that evening at 6 p.m. he would com­mit sui­cide,” Al­maeena re­counted.

That evening, the man told Al­maeena how his mother-in-law used to beat him and take his monthly salary — mak­ing his life a mis­ery.

“I said, ‘what do I have to do with it?’ And he said, ‘You are the Arab News, where do I go?’,” Al­maeena ex­plained.

The so­lu­tion was hu­man, help­ful and some­what mis­chievous — all qual­i­ties that the for­mer edi­tor him­self ex­udes. Al­maeena asked a friend to call the man’s mother-in-law, pre­tend­ing he was from an of­fi­cial of­fice, and told her to stop beat­ing the man or face de­por­ta­tion.

The ruse worked, and the woman stopped the beat­ings. Some­time later the man got a Green Card to move to the US — and Al­maeena re­ceived Eid greet­ing mes­sages from him for years af­ter­ward.

This was just one ex­am­ple of how Al­maeena and Arab News helped mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, fight­ing for hu­man causes and in­ves­ti­gat­ing so­cial is­sues.

“Peo­ple com­ing from out­side had no ac­cess to the Saudi au­thor­i­ties, so when­ever they had any prob­lem they would write to us. So we be­came like an agony col­umn for a lot of them,” said Al­maeena.

“The role of the news­pa­per was to give hope to the peo­ple here. I used to get let­ters from pri­son, we got peo­ple out of pri­son… There were many peo­ple who would write to us.”

He still gets asked about Arab News in his na­tive Saudi Ara­bia — and even when trav­el­ing abroad in the US or Canada.

“Still peo­ple write to me … An Egyp­tian gen­tle­man came to me and told me that his spon­sor is giv­ing him hell. And I said, ‘why did you come to me?’ And he said, ‘you were the guy at Arab News help­ing (peo­ple).’”

Blood, sweat and tears

Al­maeena did not be­gin his ca­reer in jour­nal­ism, but had a love of lan­guages and read­ing from an early age.

He grew up read­ing English-lan­guage papers like The Times and The Guardian, and at­tended a strict school in Karachi, where he said “they in­stilled in us dis­ci­pline and car­ing for oth­ers.”

Upon re­turn­ing to Saudi Ara­bia, he landed a job at Saudi Ara­bian Air­lines (Sau­dia). He started read­ing the Arab News, and grad­u­ally his ca­reer path moved to­ward jour­nal­ism, start­ing with some ra­dio re­port­ing, be­fore writ­ing for the Saudi Gazette news­pa­per.

He was asked — just “by chance,” Al­maeena said mod­estly — to be­come the edi­tor in chief of Arab News in 1982, be­gin­ning the first of two stints as the news­pa­per’s long­est-serv­ing edi­tor.

“It was blood, sweat and tears all the way. I re­mem­ber when I joined … the cir­cu­la­tion was about 6,000 — this was June of 1982. In Septem­ber it went to 27,000.”

The Gulf war

The Gulf war rep­re­sented both the high, and low point of Al­maeena’s ed­i­tor­ship of Arab News.

When Sad­dam Hus­sein in­vaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, it sparked the news story of the decade for Al­maeena. It was also one he was al­most banned from writ­ing.

“The min­is­ter of in­for­ma­tion called us on Aug. 2, 1990, and said not to write that Iraq had in­vaded Kuwait. I suf­fered all kinds of mini strokes in my mind,” Al­maeena re­called.

“So I went to him… and I told him that ‘I will kiss your hand, Mr. Min­is­ter. The world knows that Sad­dam is in Kuwait... And you’re ask­ing me not to write?’ I couldn’t do that.

“To me, I think that was the worst day of my life, even in my per­sonal life. Be­cause I couldn’t live with it.”

In the end, Al­maeena got around the ban by car­ry­ing a head­line that sug­gested all was not well in Kuwait — yet some of his fel­low news­pa­per ed­i­tors were not so bold.

“There were some other ed­i­tors, poor peo­ple, who had to write ‘pro­duc­tion of straw­ber­ries is on the rise’, and stuff like that,” he said. “We had to tell the truth. I could never be a toady, or curry fa­vors with peo­ple.”

De­spite that at­tempted in­ter­fer­ence by the gov­ern­ment, Al­maeena said that the Saudi kings — most of whom he met over the course of his ca­reer and per­sonal life, given his fam­ily’s close his­tor­i­cal ties with the royal fam­ily — had never in­ter­fered with the news­pa­per. “They never told you what you wrote, what you didn’t write,” he said.

CNN call­ing

While the first day of the Gulf War was the low point, the con­flict also proved a high­light of Al­maeena’s ed­i­tor­ship, and helped put Arab News on the map.

Al­maeena formed a team with ed­i­tors of other pub­li­ca­tions to cover the in­va­sion, mov­ing the news­pa­per’s HQ to Saudi Ara­bia’s East­ern Province.

The news­pa­per ended up be­com­ing a ref­er­ence point for the in­ter­na­tional me­dia cov­er­ing the Gulf War, with fa­mous jour­nal­ists such as Chris­tiane Aman­pour, Katie Couric, Deb­o­rah Amos and the late Bob Si­mon seek­ing out in­for­ma­tion from Arab News.

“All these peo­ple came, be­cause we were a source of news,” said Al­maeena. “That put Arab News right on the map. I think that was the turn­ing point of Arab News, in 1990, when CNN (was quot­ing) us.”

More than 20 years later, Al­maeena was edit­ing Arab News — for the sec­ond time — when the 9/11 ter­ror at­tack hit the US. Given this was now the In­ter­net age, many peo­ple were search­ing for “Arab” sto­ries on­line, and the news­pa­per’s name nat­u­rally popped up in the re­sults. In the space of one week, the news­pa­per re­ceived thou­sands of hate-mail mes­sages, many us­ing foul lan­guage. But Al­maeena got a team of vol­un­teers to­gether to re­ply, at least to those us­ing civil lan­guage, to calm them and ex­plain the news­pa­per’s po­si­tion.

The fu­ture

Al­maeena is now man­ag­ing part­ner of a com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany and has sev­eral other in­ter­ests in­clud­ing so­cial work and men­tor­ing. Al­though he still writes, he does not miss the daily grind of jour­nal­ism.

“I don’t miss the head­lines and dead­lines,” he said.

That said, Al­maeena sees a solid fu­ture for Arab News, of which he is edi­tor emer­i­tus.

“Arab News has al­ways been a bridge be­tween the ex­pa­tri­ates, the Saudis and the gov­ern­ment.

“I truly be­lieve it can play a role, be­cause now they are on­line, and the pa­per can re­ally go ahead and do it.”

“But we have to be seen as an in­de­pen­dent voice: Ac­cu­rate, fac­tual and not afraid to speak out when it needs to be done.”

And speak­ing out is some­thing that Al­maeena him­self, over the course of his ca­reer, has cer­tainly ex­celled in.

Parts of this in­ter­view were orig­i­nally pub­lished in April 2017

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