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The Telegraph and the UAE: a marriage made in heaven?

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Introduction by CAMPAIN

Peter Oborne knows a thing or two about the Telegraph. He was its Chief Political commentator, but in 2015 resigned on principle, after finding that it was subordinating its editorial line to the interests of its leading advertiser, HSBC. He found that the Telegraph had put the interests of a major international bank above its duty to report the news, a “form of fraud on its readers”.

Now the Barclay family who own the Telegraph are preparing for a deal with investors from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the article below, Oborne shows that the marriage partners have much in common, including their shared scepticism about human rights, unwillingness to heed warnings about climate change and even negative attitudes towards Islam. However, from our point of view this is hardly a marriage made in heaven, but risks being a further nail in the coffin of UK press freedom.

Rishi Sunak with President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zay
Where influence counts: President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayad al Nahyan with Rishi Sunak

It is no secret that the development of social media has undermined newspapers' traditional business model, eating into their circulation and advertising revenue, and making it increasingly difficult to make a profit. So why should anybody want to own one? Well, even a marginally profitable newspaper provides a vehicle whereby plutocrats can influence public opinion and Government and public policy. Therein lies the risk of UAE control of a leading British newspaper.

This article first appeared in Middle East Eye, on 4th September 2023

The Telegraph sale: The UAE bid is a risk to press freedom, by Peter Oborne

Questions linger about whether the paper could follow a policy of editorial non-interference under the ownership of the UAE, a country which ranks a dismal 119th in the world press freedom index.

The Daily Telegraph is the house journal of Britain's governing Conservative Party.

Practically every Conservative prime minister has written for it, while two have served on the staff: Winston Churchill (as a war reporter) and more recently Boris Johnson. Often referred to as the Daily Torygraph, its voice carries weight in Whitehall, Westminster and in Downing Street.

Just as crucial, it has long been the preferred loudspeaker for Britain’s military and intelligence establishment.

Nadim Zahawi
Nadim Zahawi, potential Chairman of a new UAE-owned group

The newspaper has been up for sale ever since Lloyds Bank seized control from the Barclay family, its debt-laden former owners. Reports have emerged that investors from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have become involved. Former Tory chairman, Nadim Zahawi, is reported by the Times to be acting as a middleman and may become chairman of the new group.

These anonymous UAE investors must now be regarded as front runners to play a role in the purchase of the Daily Telegraph, all the more so since they appear to be ready to inject £600m (over $760m) into the newspaper title.

A marriage made in heaven

In recent months the paper has run a series of pieces urging that Britain should adopt policies that would leave the United Kingdom stranded alongside Belarus and Russia as the only European countries outside the European Court of Human Rights.

In many ways, the UAE and the Daily Telegraph is a marriage made in heaven. They have so much in common, first and foremost a shared scepticism about human rights.

The Telegraph tends to argue that the European Court is a threat to democracy, not something that would bother the autocratic UAE, a serial human rights offender.

In July last year, in a report on the UAE, the UN Committee against Torture expressed "particular concern that reports received detail a pattern of torture and ill-treatment against human rights defenders and persons accused of offences against state security".

Our current government might look with longing at the UAE’s Code of Crimes and Punishments, which criminalizes free expression and assembly, and even more so new immigration laws which refuse to recognise the right of refugees to claim asylum.

Climate change is another area where The Daily Telegraph finds itself in the same happy place as the UAE, which recently flouted UN demands that countries must begin reducing production of fossil fuels to meet their obligations as a signatory to the Paris Agreement.

According to World Bank data, the UAE has one of the world’s top five highest levels of per capita carbon dioxide emissions. The oil state would not have been displeased by last month’s Daily Telegraph leader which demanded that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak dump the "ludicrous net zero timetable".

The Telegraph and the UAE have a common attitude to Islam. At first sight, this appears counter-intuitive, given that critics accuse the Daily Telegraph of anti-Muslim bias while the UAE is a Muslim country.

Yet, there is no doubt that the UAE has devoted time, influence and a great deal of money to discrediting Islamist political movements which it considers a threat to the state. The UAE has portrayed "Islamists" as a mortal threat to the West, often defining them as terrorists, thus tying their western allies closer through a shared enemy.

A remarkable investigation in the New Yorker earlier this year by David Kirkpatrick exposed the role played by UAE in stoking Islamophobia in Europe and the US. One of the UAE targets was the charity Islamic Relief, which has also come under scrutiny in The Daily Telegraph. The Bridge initiative in Washington has noted how Arab autocrats, including the rulers of the UAE, equate "all forms of religious or political practice and interpretation outside of state control as forms of 'radicalism'". These autocrats seek to repress any person or movement that challenges the status quo under the guise of preserving "moderation" and "stability".

Shared analysis

While The Telegraph has a track record of publishing inaccurate stories that portray Muslims in a disobliging light, it shares a strikingly similar analysis to Abu Dhabi, though perhaps for different reasons. More than anyone else, this symbiosis between the Daily Telegraph and the UAE is embodied by the Fleet Street legend Con Coughlin. Coughlin straddles three roles. He is defence and foreign affairs editor of the Telegraph, a distinguished senior fellow of Gatestone, a US think tank notorious for the dissemination of Islamophobic conspiracy theories in articles such as "Muhammad is the Future of Europe", "Germany: Should Migrants Integrate?".

Cong Coughlin, Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor at The Telegraph
Con Coughlin, "a constant supporter of the US-sponsored system of client despotism across the Middle East, in which the UAE has played a central role", says Oborne.

Until last year, Coughlin was a regular writer for The National, the English language newspaper owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and UAE deputy prime minister.

In these three sympathetic forums, Coughlin has set out a foreign policy analysis that often fits like a glove with many of the aims and objectives of UAE’s ambitious president, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan.

Coughlin has been a consistent opponent of the Arab Spring - at one point reproaching former US President Barack Obama for not sticking by Egypt's then-doomed President Hosni Mubarak. He’s been a constant supporter of the US-sponsored system of client despotism across the Middle East, in which the UAE has played a central role.

He’s a longstanding advocate for Israel, UAE’s core regional ally, and a consistent critic of Iran, UAE’s local rival. Naturally enough, Coughlin is a longstanding critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, a major UAE target.

The Moscow connection

The political instincts of the UAE and the Telegraph are so aligned that one wonders why the oil state would bother to get involved with the purchase of a paper that so faithfully reflects its views. The answer may lie in the recent estrangement between UAE and the West following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

To the horror and mortification of western observers, the UAE has flatly refused to jump to attention and take sides between Russia and the United States. The UAE ruler has travelled to Moscow twice in the last 12 months and arms deals are on the horizon with China.

As a loyal western ally, the UAE has been allowed to get away cost-free with its derelictions over climate change and human rights.

As a new cold war looms, this flirtation with Moscow and Beijing is more serious. The prospect of UAE ownership of one of the most famous newspapers in the world, moreover one traditionally so close to the British political, military and intelligence establishments, is certain to raise objections.

This might help to explain the peculiar financial structure apparently under contemplation. The Barclay family is reportedly attempting to "regain control of the Telegraph group" with financial support from a group of anonymous UAE investors. In theory the Barclays could return as owners of the Telegraph, unburdened by the regulatory scrutiny any new owner is certain to face, not just as a result of traditional competition considerations, but also as a consequence of Britain's new national security investment regime.

Details are scanty at this point, but a parallel suggests itself with the sale of Manchester City football club to UAE investors 15 years ago. The UAE investors were linked to the Abu Dhabi royal family. Sheikh Mansour, owner of the investment group, is the brother of the country’s ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed.

The purchase of Manchester City has been an outstanding success. The UAE picked up a languishing club, overshadowed by its local neighbour Manchester United, and turned it into the greatest football team in the world.

Lingering questions

I love British newspapers, and for many years worked for the Daily Telegraph as well as its sister publication the Spectator. In recent years, under the Barclay family, I have - at times - feared for this great title, such a valuable part of British civic architecture.

Given massive financial investment, shrewd recruitment, and a deep commitment to the best values of British journalism, it is easy to imagine new UAE owners repeating their historic success at Manchester City and turning the Telegraph back into the great newspaper it once was.

But that would mean following a policy of editorial non-interference.

The Telegraph, remember, has a magnificent heritage. The paper first appeared in 1855. In the first edition, the paper’s editor, Colonel Arthur Sleigh, laid down the principles that would govern his newspaper: “We shall be guided by a high tone of independent action.” Questions linger whether the paper could aspire to such heights under the ownership of the UAE, a country that ranks a dismal 119th in the world press freedom index.

Little in the 50-year history of UAE as an independent state gives cause for optimism that press freedom is top of its list of national priorities, but where there’s life there’s hope.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.


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