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
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
David Hirst is the Middle East correspondent of the Guardian.
120,000 (its own, unaudited, estimate)
Khalid bin Sultan, son of the Saudi defence minister
This article was first published on Campaign