He may be Editor-in-Chief of the most widely circulated newspapers in the Middle East, but as Abdul Hamid Ahmad tells Al Shindagah’, he’s a simple man at heart
“I feel as though I’ve lived three lifetimes,” says Abdul Hamid Ahmad, the Editor-in- Chief of Gulf News, when asked about what it means to be Emirati.
“I have memories from even before the UAE was formed,” continues the 53 year old, who was born and brought up in Jumeirah, with an unmistakable sense of pride. “I think that’s what makes me and other Emiratis unique. We’ve lived what could be considered three lifetimes, having witnessed this country change. We remember the time before its inception, then its rebirth and then we saw it become what it is now. It all happened in such a short period of time. It’s really remarkable and it makes me feel very proud.”
The Editor-in-Chief first met Khalaf Al Habtoor in the 1980s, when they both served on the ‘National Committee to support Arabic Causes’, a charity which was made up mainly of successful businessmen and media heads. These days, as Editor-in-Chief of Gulf News he regularly publishes Al Habtoor’s articles. This aside, both are men with strong opinions who are not afraid to voice them.
Indeed Ahmad has a reputation as a formidable character in the Gulf’s media industry, yet he describes himself as an uncomplicated person, who enjoys the simple things in life and who came from an ordinary background. His father was a fisherman who, in his later years, ran a shop Ahmad’s grounded perspective is refreshing ,given his status as Editor-in-Chief of the most widely read newspaper in the region. It’s also reflected in his firm handshake and natural demeanour.
However as a former reporter, he’s used to being the one asking the questions, instead of answering them, and at first he’s tentative with his responses. But on recalling memories of ‘Old Dubai’ he becomes more relaxed; his replies – more expressive and insightful; his posture – more at ease; almost as if he’s reliving that time. He moves his prayer beads through his fingers as he speaks. “I’ve witnessed this country grow,” he says, casting his mind back. “I remember a time when we didn’t have cement houses and high-rise buildings; when we used to live in tents; a time before electricity and running water; when we had to use oil lamps to read in the dark. I remember too the day when the first car drove through our village.”
His path to Editor-in-Chief of the Gulf’s largest independent English-language newspaper is not a typical one. In fact, he describes his entry into journalism as one of pure coincidence.
As a child he showed talent for writing while still at school. After secondary level however, he went to London where he studied Chemical Engineering. “The education system in the UAE used to encourage students with the highest grades to study science subjects,” he says, explaining why he chose science rather than a literary course at university. He continued to write none the less he says and on his return to the UAE, decided to publish a collection of his short stories himself.
Then one day, shortly after his return, he was driving down a street in Sharjah when he spotted a printing shop called ‘Bin Majid’. On a whim, he stopped the car to enquire about getting his stories printed and to his surprise, found a familiar face working there, someone who encouraged him instead to join the company’s soon-to-launched magazine.
That familiar face was the prominent Emirati journalist Mohammad Obaid Ghoubash, considered to be one of the pioneers of UAE’s media industry. They had originally met when Ahmad was a school boy, having been introduced by one his teachers. Fast forward to 1979 however and Ghoubash, along with his brother, Ghanim and an editorial consultant called Abdullah Al Sharhan, was in the process of developing a hard-hitting socio-political magazine called Al Azmina Al Arabiya.
Ahmad joined and it wasn’t long until he’d worked his way up from being a reporter to the managing editor. However the publication’s license was revoked by the government in 1981. “I started to like journalism once I joined the magazine,” he explains. “The people working on it – from the editor in chief, to the consultant and the managing editor, all trained me to be a good reporter. It was a very strong magazine, one of the best in the UAE,” he continues. “But after a while we had problems with the government in the region and it was finally closed down.” He says that it was too controversial, but adds that Al Azmina Al Arabiya was re-established in 1983 outside the UAE and he continued to write for it then.
Now, after more than three decades in the media in the Middle East, he knows the industry like the back of his hand. He’s been employed by several daily newspapers, notably Ittihad in Abu Dhabi and Al Bayan in Dubai. He celebrates a decade of being at the helm of Gulf News this year, having seen the newspaper through the boom years and witnessed a transition from traditional to digital technology.
And while you might expect him to sing the praises of the modern-day media in the Gulf, or defend it to the hilt, he is in fact quite critical of it. “The industry may have grown in quantity and quality and in terms of technology and resources, but when it comes to content, I feel we are sitting back,” he says, adding that, while some progress has been made in entertainment journalism in the region in recent years, investigative journalism is even weaker than it used to be back in the 1970s and its absence is obvious.
However he’s clearly proud of his achievements in the media and indeed with Gulf News. “There are many unique things about Gulf News,” he says.” It’s an independent, fully-audited newspaper that doesn’t belong, in-part or in-full, to any government; it has built a name for itself and a reputation from scratch; it distributes more than 100,000 copies a day – 70 per cent of which are from loyal subscribers and lastly, it has always been ahead of the game – both in terms of technology, as well as content.”
Clearly he is passionate about his work and strives to make the newspaper the best in the region in terms of content, quality and technological innovation – a remit, he says, that has been shaped in part by the philosophy of the Gulf News investors. But he’s keen to underline also the fact that this ambition stems from the same values that have long been ingrained in the Emirati community.
“As Emiratis, we feel proud that we’ve kept our values, which are not only Islamic but cultural. We are a very generous people. We’ve lived amongst foreigners for many years and we’re open to other cultures. As a people, we’re not only open-minded but big-hearted. And these values have always been part of the UAE culture and mind set,” he says.
He adds that, while there are still things to be achieved here and gaps to be filled in society, he’s equally proud and grateful to be a citizen of one of the few countries in the world, which truly provides for its people, giving them whatever they need, from free education to health care.
He’s refreshingly positive too about the current generation. Although he recognises the vast differences between the previous generation and this one, he has three children of his own, two sons and a daughter, as well as two grandchildren, and they have influenced him in this respect. “I know some people criticise the younger generation, saying they’ve lost some of their values,” he comments. “But I disagree. I think they are better than us [our generation] in many ways. I see my own children become educated and work hard at their jobs. They know things that we never did and they act differently in some respects, but I don’t think it’s a problem.”
And his advice for the youth of today? “Read. I might sound old fashioned but I think knowledge comes from reading. Although I have a computer, an iPad and an iPhone, I still feel that knowledge only comes through books. I fear that this generation don’t appreciate the benefits of reading.”
In the years to come, Ahmad is looking forward to retiring. While he continues to enjoy working at Gulf News for the moment, he says he’s also relishing the thought of having more time to do his three favourite things in life: reading, writing short stories and travelling. “I like the simple things,” he smiles and lays his prayer beads on the table. “I’m a simple kind of man.”