- RODOLFO ESTIMO, Former Editor at Saudi Arabia’s Leading Newspaper Arab News
The interview with well-known Saudi journalist Khaled Almaeena by the Mo Show Podcast on March 28 was timely and significant.
Mo Show Podcast, the first Saudi podcast in English, hosts leading Saudi male and female personalities across industries, entrepreneurs, journalists, and expats who live or visited the Kingdom to talk about their journeys in Saudi Arabia.
By and large, the interview discussed how Almaeena, an iconic journalist, look at issues of contemporary times and how these impact life in the Kingdom.
And like many times in the past, the interview by Mohammad Islam —The Mo Show Podcast founder— was viewed and followed by netizens whose life, one way or another, has been touched by Almaeena.
They’re legion. Senator Sehar Kamran T. I. said, ”Khaled Almaeena, a living legend, a most respected name in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) media.”
“A real joy to watch (Khaled Almaena) speak. One of the best of his generation,” added Helga Danish.
Hira Abdul Razzak added,” Mr. Khaled Almaeena. Your hard work has really shined through. Every time we see you, you raise our spirit and energy. You’re so talented in what you do.”
Islam as interviewer is good, asking just the right kind of questions and to the point.
As a result, he elicited clear and forthright answers from the interviewee, a veteran of several interviews in the Kingdom and abroad.
As common practice in interviews, the young podcast founder asked about the interviewee’s educational background and how he started his media career.
Almaeena said that generations of his clan— his forefathers, grandfathers and uncles — did business in the subcontinent so he went to study at the St. Patrick College at the University of Karachi in Pakistan.
“After college I came back to Saudi Arabia, then I went to Washington D.C. in the U.S. to study. I enrolled in a one-year course. Then I came back to the Kingdom,” he said.
He said that Islam’s father, one of the managers at the Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), invited him to visit the airline’s office.
“So I went. Your father, a great friend and a mentor, offered coffee. The office was clean and the people came on time. I was so impressed. I thought to be with the airline was fit for me. So I was there for sometime,” he said.
Saudia was grooming Saudi managers and the young Almaeena back then was among 14 in the airline’s graduate program.
At the time, Saudi Airlines was being supervised by the Trans World Airlines (TWA).
After office hours he went to Jeddah Radio to read the news of the day. At that time, Jeddah Radio was the main source of information, in addition to BBC, Voice of America, and a news outfit in Cairo.
Then the 1970s came. The legendary Hafiz brothers— Hisham and Mohammad Ali — offered him to be the Arab News editor-in-chief which had 12 pages at the time.
“I was surprised by the offer. I had never been in a newspaper office,” he said.
He added that they asked him how much salary he wanted.
“Since I had no idea on how much the ongoing rate was for the position at the time, I asked the editor-in-chief of Saudi Gazette how much was he receiving but he won’t tell me. I asked for a yardstick but still he refused. I came up with a figure and told them and they accepted it,” he said.
Year 2010 came a flood of social media platforms
He added that his mother was crying because she didn’t like the job for him.
Islam asked him what in his mind could be the era or time when the media or newspaper industry took a turning point.
He said that post-2010 marked the proliferation of various (social) media platforms like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, among others.
As environmentalists promoted the protection of the environment and called for halt to the cutting of trees which are the source of paper for newspaper publication, people turned to the Internet and social media platforms.
“They read news online,” Almaeena said.
Moreover, he noted that people increasingly turned to the Internet for information such as how to cure various ailments like diabetes.
But he cautioned that there’s a flip side to it since it’s also a source of harmful information.
Then Islam asked him if he remembered running a story which otherwise he wouldn’t have it published and he said yes, making him, in the process, run afoul of the law and that there were stories “from which I was saved by the skin of my teeth.”
He also asked Almaeena if what does he miss in the old days and the latter said “it was coming to the office in the morning,” sit down and buckle down to work.
“It wasn’t like cutting and pasting stories. Back then, we had to produce stories. We were living in the Arab world where 70 percent of our readers were expatriates,” he said.
He added, ”We focused on woman’s rights, plight of expatriates, economic enhancement and Saudization.”
“I wrote an agony column instead of being the editor. We stuck out our necks on various issues. We became a voice for the voiceless. We challenged companies and employers and got people out of jail,” he said.
Then he was asked if there was any part of his job which he didn’t like and he said it was the “holier than thou” attitude of writers.
“A writer has to be fair, balanced on what he writes about and listen to the other side,” he said.
On being bias and opinionated, he said that there was a paper in Texas which published an article on Saudi Arabia based on a totally false information.
“I wrote 11 letters to the editor to set the record straight and not one was published,” he said.
Both interviewer and interviewee agreed that there’s control of the media by both authorities and big business that impacts press freedom.
They agreed that such control be lessened, if not altogether stamped out.
Almaeena said that those in charge of media must be fair and could sift through what is right and wrong.
Shifting to other topics, Islam asked Almaeena if there were stories memorable for him and he said yes. One of these was the Gulf War (Aug. 2, 1990-Feb. 8, 1991).
“The invasion was on Aug. 2 and we were there (Kuwait) on Aug. 8. There was a small directive that we were not allowed to write about something,” he said. Since he advocated press freedom, he questioned it.
There was also the case in the Eastern Province, in which he pushed that penalty be meted out to the perpetrator(s).
“The CNN came up with a totally distorted report on it,” he said.
Almaeena also met and had a long talk with the freedom icon Nelson Mandela, late former president of South Africa who was incarcerated on Roben Island for 28 years.
“Mandela wanted to nationalize white business but changed his mind when he realized that native South Africans did not have the expertise to manage it,” he said.
On contemporary times, Almaeena expressed amazement over developments and reforms that have taken place in society.
“The reforms, woman empowerment and emergence of the young have come so fast and simply amazing and mind-boggling,” he said.
He cited the introduction of the Absher app through which doing and accomplishing things have been greatly facilitated.
“Compared to the old days , now I can update the information on my passport and get it shortly,” he said, unlike in the old days when he’d have it after six days.
Absher is a smartphone app developed by the Saudi Ministry of Interior, allowing citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia to use a variety of governmental services such as applying for a job and Hajj permit and reporting electronic crimes.
On woman empowerment, women can now drive their own cars and become members of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, which is the formal advisory body of the Kingdom, an absolute monarchy.
In fact, one of his children — Lina Almaeen — is a member. A leading female writer, she has come to be seen as one of the leading women in Saudi Arabia today.
In 2003, she started a woman’s basketball team and called it Jeddah United, after his home city, before turning it into a sports company that provides opportunities to women and kids to take part in sports.
The success of Jeddah United has seen her voted onto the Young Saudi Business Committee and Sports Investment Committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and the Kingdom’s Young Business Women Council.
In 2010, she was listed as one of the 200 Most Powerful Women in the Middle East by Forbes Magazine.
In citing woman empowerment, he called to mind what happened to his wife, the equally well-known Samar Fatany, while settling a land issue.
She was made to face the wall, Almaeena said. Of course, such a thing won’t happen anymore.
Samar Fatany, while with Jeddah Radio, published quite a number of books which are collections of her articles which appeared in various publications.
He and his wife met in Pakistan, where her father was then the Saudi envoy in the South Asian country.
“I want to mentor young media professionals. I’d like to pass the baton to them. I had great teachers.”
— Top Saudi journalist Khaled Almaeena
Asked what he liked in her, Almaeena said, “I like a woman whom I could talk with.”
“Things have really changed in the Saudi landscape,” Almaeena said, noting that young people have been involved with multimillion-dollar organizations.
He noted, however, that they need guidance and mentorship.
Almaeena was also asked if how he spends time in retirement. At 65, he has stopped going to the office for a regular job whence he used to draw a monthly paycheck.
But he said, ”Being retired is retiring from life.”
He’s still busy as he was for several years in the past. He’s still the chairman of the Albilad Publishing Corp., managing partner at Quartz Communications and director at Al-Abeer Medical Group.
“With the Al-Abeer Medical Group I learn and give advise on medical issues,” he said.
Answering a question from his young interviewer, Almaeena said,” I want to mentor young media professionals. I’d like to pass the baton to them. I had great teachers.”
He advised them to have proficiency with language in Arabic or English and acquire a vast trove of knowledge by reading.
In being a mentor, he wants to enhance the quality of life — to make it a great gift from God, adding that “we’ll be remembered for the good things we’ve done.” (✓)