x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Al Ittihad: the newspaper that symbolises the union

40 years of the UAE: Stories were written by hand and then sent to the presses.

When the Arabic-language newspaper Al Ittihad was first published, journalists did not write their stories on a typewriter, let alone a computer.

In 1969, when the oldest surviving newspaper in the Emirates was founded, articles were written by hand before being sent to press.

Al Ittihad was launched at the request of Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, and predates the foundation of the country in 1971.

It is no coincidence that it was named after the Arabic word for "union" - while Al Ittihad dutifully covered the events leading up to the formation of the seven emirates, it also had a more vital role: to promote the very idea of the union in the hearts and minds of the people.

"It was a reinforcing element - it did play a role in boosting the idea of the union," said Mohamed Eisa, the assistant executive managing editor of Al Ittihad, where he has worked for 18 years. "It is looked at by Emiratis as a national symbol - it's symbolic of the establishment of the union."

In the 1970s, it was an extremely low-tech operation. There was no internet, desktop publishing, and no quirkily branded media zones, such as Abu Dhabi's twofour54, to encourage media innovation.

Even a typewriter would have been seen as a technical marvel, said Mohammad Yousuf, the head of the UAE Journalists Association. "If I told the young journalists now how we worked before, they wouldn't believe what I said," he said. "We wrote it by hand, and they sent it to the presses."

Now 57, the Emirati started working as a journalist in 1976, when he was 22. His first job was for Al Ittihad, which is now part of the government-owned Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns and publishes The National.

Along with working for the Journalists Association, Mr Yousuf writes a daily column for the Arabic-language newspaper Emarat Al Youm.

Early editions of Al Ittihad were virtually unrecognisable to the publications today. "It was eight pages, and there were fewer than 15 people working there," remembered Mr Yousuf. "We were the first paper in the Arab world to use photosetting. And in 1979, we used the first fax." Before its launch on October 20, 1969, there was little in the way of formal media: people relied on noticeboards in souqs and other public areas for their news.

Jack Hillwig, the assistant dean in the college of communication and media sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, said there was still a "word-of-mouth" culture when the UAE was formed.

"In 1971 the media industry was, by world standards, pretty primitive," said Mr Hillwig, who teaches a media history class. "You still had a significant among of illiteracy in the country. Advertising and public relations didn't get going in a big way until probably the 1990s."

There were a few earlier attempts to create a formalised media. Mr Hillwig points to Al Oman, a paper founded in 1927 by an Al Ain journalist called Mohammed Al Medfua.

"It was something between an oversized pamphlet and a newspaper. But it did publish the daily news."

Decades later, the media industry is flourishing, despite having been hit hard by the recession. Al Ittihad was followed in 1970 by Sharjah's Al Khaleej, and in 1979 by Dubai's Al Bayan, according to the National Media Council.

It now licenses 12 daily newspapers, although one of them, Emirates Business 24/7, closed as a print title and has relaunched as a website.

There has been similar growth in broadcasting. In 1971, there were a couple of AM-frequency radio stations, and little television. Today, there are numerous radio stations and more than 500 free-to-air TV stations beamed across the Arab world.

Despite the number of media outlets, the one role of government-owned newspapers such as Al Ittihad has not changed, said Mr Hillwig.

"I think Sheikh Zayed and the people around him realised the fact that the media can be an entity that cements some kind of unity. In the UAE, newspapers are still an entity for that. They are used to getting out the word the government wants."

bflanagan@thenational.ae