Campaign Middle East newsletter, 18 September, 2005

One of the great things about being a hack is that you get to meet the occasional media bigwig and then drop their names for years afterwards.

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By  Tim Burrowes Published  September 18, 2005

The man who’ll put Middle East media on the map|~||~||~|One of the great things about being a hack is that you get to meet the occasional media bigwig and then drop their names for years afterwards. I’ve had a few. Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the tearaway British tabloid The Sun, was the one who most lived up to hopes — simultaneously funny, clever and offensive. Steve Forbes, multimillionaire president and chief executive officer of Forbes Global, who curiously enough is due to be in the Middle East at the moment, was another bigwig — but when it came to interesting quotes he sadly remained as guarded as the trained politician he is. And earlier this year former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, who was also in Dubai this week, proved to be a dream interviewee with an engaging soundbite for every question. But when I met him earlier this year I still left with less idea of what he was like as a person than anyone else I’ve ever interviewed. James Murdoch, son of media magnate Rupert Murdoch and boss of Sky Television in the UK, was also an intriguing conversation. Far more likeable than you’d expect, he was creditably honest about how little TV he watched and far more enthusiastic about the Tour de France bike race. But I’ve a feeling I’m about to add another name to my name-drop hit parade. I think that quite soon I’ll be making the most of being able to say I met Abdullatif Al Saygeh before he was a global media baron. Now, when I read this sort of thing, this is where I usually get cynical about journalists getting carried away saying nice things about the person they interviewed just because they were vaguely civil to them. So feel free to take it with as much salt as you want, but Al Saygeh does have an awful lot going for him. For instance, there is an unpleasantly clichéd view of what ‘locals’ are like. Lazy, arrogant and stupid about sums it up. I suggest that those who take that view meet him. Yes, of course he was going to be charming — he trained in the US, so is media savvy enough to behave himself in an interview. But more than that, you can see that he gets it. He really does have a vision for how he can turn the Arab Media Group into a worldwide player. And he’s got big Dubai money behind him to make it happen too. And, as for lazy, he works a punishing schedule. For instance, he squeezed in our conversation at the weekend. And I’ve met few who come across as more driven, or more polite to his staff. Almost the only thing I could see diverting him would be if he gets called into a government role instead. While Dubai has become a player on the world stage in many areas, its media has lagged behind. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s still quite poor. AMG launches its two new papers tomorrow with a mandate to improve the level of debate. I suspect they’ll be an improvement on what is already on offer, even if they are not world-beaters from day one. But, more to the point, this is only the beginning. When AMG starts acquiring media in the rest of the world, things are going to get really interesting. I believe him when he says the reason for the explosive growth at home is in order to quickly build a base for expansion abroad. Not that this will stop other local media owners from feeling threatened, of course. He almost seems too good to be true. As he showed me out of the office (something that many in his position would have a secretary do, by the way), he suddenly asked about something he wanted to get into the profile. When that happens, my heart generally sinks, as the interviewee tries to retract the most interesting part. In his case though, he simply wanted to stress how grateful he was for his family’s support. Sorry — apologies for the lack of the usual healthy Campaign Middle East cynicism. Normal service will be resumed next week, I’m sure. In the meantime, I’ve got to go and do some name-dropping.||**||

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