In 2016, amid turmoil and despair across the Arab world, the team at Majalla gave careful thought to the role our voice should play in the regional and international discussion of the Middle East.
We took stock of the media landscape around us: Though the number of Arabic outlets has swelled beyond measure, those that speak honestly and credibly remain rare. Rarer still are those that provide a global perspective to their audience. Most, for example, do not convey a sense of how Arab and Islamic politics and culture reflect on our region in distant lands, let alone offer reliable coverage of the world beyond the Middle East.
We then took stock of countries in the Middle East where a different language prevails, such as Turkey, Iran, and Israel: We saw a profound disconnect in discourse, and observed the gains these countries have registered in the regional discussion and beyond. Iran, notably, has built a powerful network of Arabic-language media outlets, as well as strong communications capacities in English. Working through these surrogates, Tehran has influenced not only how Arabs perceive the Iranian government, but also how Arabs perceive themselves — and even tweaked the Western policy debate to advance its policies.
Finally, we took stock of how the broader world understands, or misunderstands, the Arab landscape. We saw international media outlets’ foreign bureaus closing down for budgetary reasons, and sometimes-questionable sources of news and information stepping in to fill the void. We also perceived a hunger in Western capitals for new content about the Middle East produced by Arab journalists and meeting international standards.
In light of what we saw, we began to reimagine the magazine as a multilingual, multimedia outlet with an international reach. We resolved to challenge the conventional wisdom — through hard-hitting investigative journalism — about some of the region’s most complex and heated issues. We resolved to adopt a communication style in Arabic that would transcend ethnic and sectarian animosity, and help readers begin to perceive the “other” in more familiar terms. We also resolved to expand our audience beyond the Arabic-speaking world, through English- and Persian-language editions. To our team of writers from across the Middle East, we added new voices from outside the region, to cover Europe and the Americas, Russia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and China and the neighboring East Asian democracies.
We are proud of the results.
A Dream Team
Our core team includes Saudi writer and intellectual Yusuf al-Dayni, who has been parsing religious and cultural discourse in the Gulf States with a rare combination of empathy and objectivity. The team also includes quadrilingual Middle East specialist Joseph Braude, uniquely skilled at navigating the cultural and intellectual norms of all the region’s component parts, as well as the West. It includes a dynamic trio of Lebanese journalists and writers — Tony Badran, Hanin Ghaddar, and Eli Fawwaz — who bring the best of their country’s vitality and cosmopolitanism to bear on any topic. In parsing the nexus of Iran, Hezbollah, and their international allies, these writers also offer a piercing critical gaze, ever sharpened by their compassion for the many victims of proxy warfare. We lost a kindred spirit this year in Egyptian playwright and columnist Ali Salim, whose contributions had been a treasure for the magazine — but Dr. Ali Al-Samman, a noted Egyptian champion of interfaith dialogue, has stepped in to become a fixture in our pages this year as well. He brings six decades of experience in statecraft and peace promotion to Majalla’s coverage. We are also proud to have introduced brave journalists from inside Iran, who have exposed the deteriorating human rights situation in the country following the signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement, and the Mullahs’ new strategy to build on their economic and political gains vis a vis the West.
Trans-State Actors, Transnational Investigative Reporting
From Iranian proxy militias to Sunni jihadists, our crack team of investigative reporters both plied their trade and made headlines on five continents.
Witness reporting by Hassan Ramahi and William Glucroft concerning Yahya al-Houthi, the brother of the Houthi militia leader. They learned that, for years, he had been illegally exploiting German territory and asylum status to enhance the militia’s capacities — and, under the auspices of the Iranian embassy in Berlin, coordinating with Hezbollah and myriad Iraqi militias. The story sparked important discussions in the United States and Europe: It introduced nuance to the debate over mass migration from war-torn Arab lands to the West, and visibly enriched understanding of the war in Yemen. In the U.S., magazines including The American Interest, and policy institutions including the Foreign Policy Research Institute, also ran their own articles and analysis of the Ramahi-Glucroft series.
With respect to ISIS, Majalla is proud to have published a series by investigative reporter Jassim Mohammad, who managed to cultivate a source within the organization — at that, a former Iraqi brigadier general to whom ISIS turned to train many of its fighters. The source revealed a new subdivision within the organization, relationships between ISIS and Syrian and Iranian state actors, a hitherto unknown leadership figure within the group, and new information about the leadership hierarchy and potential to exploit schisms within it.
With respect to Iranian terror in South America, Majalla appointed acclaimed investigative reporter Ronen Bergman to track down the truth of the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in 1992 and 1994, respectively. The quest for justice in the case has long been impeded by corruption within the Argentine government, despite the tireless efforts of Alberto Nissman, a brave Argentinian prosecutor who paid for his courage with his life. Bergman’s investigative report amasses evidence from multiple intelligence agencies in Europe, Argentina, the United States, Jordan, and Israel to demonstrate incontrovertibly that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the attacks. It also shows how the coverup of the affair has devolved into the worst political scandal in Argentina since the days of the military junta — and poses questions about the potential means to at last achieve justice in the case.
Promoting Peace, Expanding Knowledge
Numerous Majalla contributions by Joseph Braude have traced the contours of a future of greater civility and tolerance in the Middle East. He has trained the spotlight on young people in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf who aim to promote critical thinking and civil deliberation in their society, and found remarkable parallels among new initiatives to counter hate speech, from the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Riyadh to the Anti-Defamation League in New York. A further contribution in this realm, of which Majalla is especially proud, was Braude’s article, “Arab-Israeli Relations in a New Regional Framework.” With an eye toward the potential for a comprehensive settlement to be realized within the framework of the “Arab Peace Initiative,” it draws extensive input from Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington and a confidante of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In asking daring questions and introducing a voice that had not previously received a fair hearing in Arabic media, the article represents a positive departure from coverage of the conflict in our region that has generated heat without light.
Veteran American peace envoy Dennis Ross, for his part, has been making his own prolific contribution to Majalla this year. It began with a far-reaching interview over the summer, in which he laid out a vision for greater regional integration and a more robust American role in stemming Iranian expansionism and Sunni jihadism alike. The interview garnered an enthusiastic response with Majalla’s audience — as well as that of our sister publication, pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat. Ambassador Ross subsequently joined us as a columnist. His biweekly columns, published simultaneously in both Majalla and Asharq Alawsat, have assessed how the US election will affect Middle East policy, how Donald Trump intends to combat ISIS, and why Ambassador Ross feels that American support for Saudi Arabia — from “Vision 2030” to regional stabilization efforts — is a preferable alternative to any march toward normalization with Iran.
In so many arenas of conflict, the question of Russia has been looming large over the course of 2016 and will undoubtedly continue to do so in 2017. To maintain focus on the issue, Majalla appointed Eurasia affairs specialist Maia Otarashvili as a columnist as well. Over the course of the year, she covered Vladimir Putin’s vast shadow, the dynamics of Russian media at home and abroad, the status of sanctions on Russia, the outcome of the Warsaw Summit, and, most recently, the implications of President-Elect Donald Trump’s favorable disposition toward the Russian leader. Ms. Otarashvili’s Majalla article about the Warsaw Summit was listed by NATO’s own multimedia library as one of the noteworthy publications of 2016. Majalla is also proud of the many contributions by Ms. Otarashvili’s colleague at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Western European affairs expert Ronald Granieri. He has enlightened our Arab and international audiences about the “Brexit” phenomenon and its transcontinental reverberations. He has insightfully covered Angela Merkel, placed the UK’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, in a historical and geopolitical context, and also helped us better understand what to expect from the next President of the United States.
New Media, New Audiences
What has been evolving in our offices, we feel, amounts to a fluid new form of international journalism, fueled by hybrid vigor. In catalyzing collaboration among voices of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, Majalla has delivered substance to our readers — through prose as well as video content; online, in print, and via social media — that spurs continuing discovery and epiphany.
2016 ended with a further step which Majalla looks forward to pursuing in 2017: We have established a memorandum of understanding with the venerated Chicago-based Tribune Company — owner of print, radio, and television properties reaching tens of millions — to share our content with its audiences.
At a time of continuing crisis and tragedy, Majalla’s duty to inform the public and bridge barriers of the spirit will only grow. We thank our audience, our team, and our partners for making it possible to keep on doing our utmost to meet these responsibilities, in the service of a region so drenched in blood and tears, so brimming with potential and hope.