Al Majalla: The leading Arab magazine?

Of all the trials and tribulations that are currently being witnessed in the tumultuous Arab world as it supposedly passes through the birth pangs of a democratic revolution, one resonating theme that appears to pop up time and again is the rise of the so-called new Arab media.

The credibility associated with some of the most prominent of these outlets, in particular the print media, will speak volumes about an era which is supposed to be free from decades of state-controlled censorship, misreporting, and truth-suppression.  It's in this climate that the Al Majalla, a Saudi-directed magazine which habitually flaunts itself as being "the leading voice of Arab political affairs," comes into the fray.  The magazine, established in 1980, seems to have a penchant for publishing the preponderance of its political analysis on selected epicenters of the Arab Spring, like North Africa and Levant -- as opposed to simultaneous revolts happening elsewhere in the Arab world -- invariably denying coverage to other self-righteous Arabs fighting for their rights.

Over the last few months, it has published a wide variation of articles, both from its writers and from contributors at large.  The content has been dealing with everything from asking how Syria's Assad should be brought down and whether there is an alternative to him to questioning Egypt's new Islamist-run leadership's ability to deal with economic challenges to domestic and state confrontations in Turkey.

This is in addition, of course, to more pliant coverage given to prominent Saudi princes, like Turki Al-Faisal, moaning about how the kingdom should deal with opportunities and conditions that confront it.

But the magazine, it appears, seems to be pained by the notion of having to cover other regional events which, aside from Syria, are perhaps of a great deal more importance: the revolts in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The rationale for it shying away from having a gnawing desire to cover Arab Spring-related events in those two countries doesn't take much to work out.

In Bahrain, a year-long civil resistance campaign of demonstrations and disobedience against the ruling Sunni monarchy has left scores of people dead and many more injured, as well as culminating in thousands of arbitrary arrests and cases of ill treatment in detention.  The climax of the crackdown in March 2011 was supported by a contingent of armed troops and carriers belonging to Saudi and allied Gulf Corporation Countries.

The underlying reason, and for that matter the most probable explanation for Al Majalla's failure to give events in Bahrain sufficient coverage both then and today, is that Bahrain, with a majority Shiite population, is arch-enemy Iran's window to the Gulf.  The closer the fall of the ruling regime, the more the cause for concern of upheaval spreading to the oil-rich Shiite heartlands of Saudi Arabia, the magazine's principal patron.

Closer to home, Saudi Arabia is given coverage, but with the preponderance going to cultural, economic, and pro-regime affairs.  If the editorial output for space given to Saudi Arabia and the contemporary Arab Spring is to be believed, the country is almost immune from what's going on in the region.

But that would be turning history on its head.

Indeed, the revolts inside the kingdom, which contains the Islamic religion's two holiest sites as well as being the principal backer of all anti-Iranian activity in the region, is a lot more serious than the selective coverage of the country that Al Majalla syndicates.

In the last few months, Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Saudi authorities to independently investigate the deaths of protesters as well as accusing them of mass repression against segments of its population in reaction to events of the Arab Spring.

Yet Al Majalla, for all its pretense of wanting to cover the voice of a new Arab generation, seems oblivious to this reality.  Upon closer analysis, it may be in line with actions emanating from Saudi Arabia's information ministry.  Over the last decade or so, the Kingdom has been synonymous with blocking websites and URLs which it deems a threat to national security or critical of the regime, and more recently resorted to even blocking the websites of Amnesty International itself.

Although Al Majalla and its Saudi Editor-in-Chief Adel Al Toraifi, who also doubles as a Ph.D. candidate at London's School of Economics, ostensibly has more leverage in the reporting of events in the Middle East, and indeed is one of the very few pro-Saudi print media outlets in English, it still has a long way to go before it can be seen as a credible magazine that freely allows material on regional events to be published without preference.  Meanwhile, Al Majalla continues to engage in the business of selective reporting and reality-denial at a time of great change and upheaval.

Mohammad I. Aslam is a Ph.D. candidate in political science in the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies and a teaching assistant in the Department of Theology & Religion, King's College London.