Newspaper Editor, Another First for Saudi Women

Published: March 11, 2014

Editor’s Note:

The press and social media in Saudi Arabia are “livelier than ever,” according to an Economist report last month. It said, “For a country reputed to be dry and dull, Saudi Arabia is surprisingly awash with news.” [The story noted that Saudis are "some of the world's most intensive users of social media."] Despite the progress being made women were absent from the top spots in media. Until now. As author and scholar Thomas Lippman wrote in The Majalla magazine, editor-in-chief Khaled Almaeena has turned over the reins of the Saudi Gazette newsroom to his protege Somayya Jabarti. SUSRIS first noted Ms. Jabarti’s byline in 2005 with the Arab News article, “Saudi Professional Women Advancing.” Indeed.

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Another First for Saudi Women
Thomas W. Lippman

The first woman to be appointed editor of a Saudi daily newspaper has made headlines around the world

People Khaled Al Maeena
Khaled Almaeena

My friend Khaled Almaeena is going out in style. Retiring as editor of the Saudi Gazette, he chose as his successor Somayya Jabarti, a longtime colleague — who happens to be a woman. She will be the first female editor of a daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia. She was his deputy and now moves up to the top job.

“She has been associated with me for almost 13 years,” Almaeena told his readers, “and I’ve had the goal almost as long of wanting to see a Saudi woman enter the male-dominated bastion of editors-in-chief. It was not a question of gender but of merit that decided and earned her this opportunity. I am proud to have played a role in her career. She is determined and dedicated, and I can assure her and the team that I will be there to assist and advise, so that Saudi Gazette further advances as a media unit in a highly competitive and digital age.”

Khaled Almaeena is one of the best-known media executives in Saudi Arabia. He was twice editor of Arab News, the leading English-language daily, before taking over the moribund Saudi Gazette in 2012. In his brief tenure, he elevated the paper into a vigorous competitor to the long-dominant Arab News.

People Samar Fatany
Samar Fatany

It is safe to say that the decision to turn his job over to a woman was supported, if not instigated, by his wife, Samar Fatany, probably the most prominent female journalist in the Kingdom. Fatany has long been an outspoken advocate of new opportunities and professional advancement for women, and for the liberalization of Saudi Arabia’s conservative society. The last time I saw her, in Jeddah, she wore an abaya decorated with bright colors, a bold statement that went far beyond fashion.

Because it is provocative, and in some circles likely to be controversial, the elevation of Jabarti must have had at least the tacit approval of the paper’s owners. The Saudi Gazette is part of the Okaz newspaper group which, according to a 2009 US Embassy report made public by Wikileaks, is owned by a group of Jeddah businessmen.

People Journalist Editor Saudi Gazette Somayya Jabarti
Somayya Jabarti

As editor-in-chief, Jabarti will not face an easy task. Almaeena said he and his colleagues have largely overcome what he called the “media corporate warfare, boardroom infighting, management caution and lack of resources” that he inherited. But she will have to navigate, sometimes on deadline, the tricky line of self-censorship that all Saudi media must practice to avoid offending the religious establishment. (Just ask Jamal Khashoggi, another well-known editor, who was twice forced out of leadership jobs for crossing that invisible line.) And Jabarti will be required to work with and supervise men, an unusual workplace situation that may prove controversial in the socially traditional Kingdom.

“I can assure her and the team that I will be there to assist and advise,” Almaeena said in his farewell message.

Jabarti becomes the latest entry in the fast-growing list of first female this or that in Saudi Arabia. The past few years have brought the first female Olympic athletes, the first women appointed to the Consultative Assembly, the first woman to hold a cabinet-rank job, and the first women admitted to practice law in Saudi courts. But Jabarti’s appointment is still enough of a novelty that it attracted news coverage from Fiji to Israel to Bangladesh.

Jabarti’s task will be eased by the fact that the Gazette, like most Saudi papers, is based in Jeddah, the most socially liberal city in the country.

Saudi women are still not permitted to drive and are excluded from many types of work, but the list of jobs they are permitted to do is growing rapidly. Women are entering the workforce in fast-rising numbers. They can now be found in factories, retail shops, financial institutions and the news media, in addition to their traditional positions as teachers and nurses.

This evolution of women’s status is largely propelled by economics: Women and their families need the money they earn when they work. As Samar Fatany herself wrote a few weeks ago:

“There are still many laws and regulations that discriminate against women based on the assumption that women are inferior; therefore, they should never be allowed to lead or hold public office — or even have a say in decisions that affect their lives.

“We live in the twenty-first century, and technological and industrial advancements have revolutionized our way of living. The world is moving at a very fast pace, and there are many challenges facing the average Saudi family; most obvious of all is the high cost of living. Economic necessities and social responsibilities toward children dictate that the majority of mothers earn a living in order to provide for their families and share in the expenses to afford a life of dignity and comfort.”

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

Source: The Majalla

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Thomas W. Lippman, a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, is the author of six books about the region and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

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