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Media powerhouse in Saudi Arabia leads the digital conversation in the Kingdom

Interview - April 5, 2016

Okaz is one of the leading local media organizations in Saudi Arabia, and is adding digital ventures to the three print publications under its umbrella: the best selling Okaz newspaper, the daily Saudi Gazette in English, and Al Nadi, the sports and youth-focused newspaper. Waleed J. Kattan, Director General of Okaz Organization for Press and Publication, discusses the role of the media in Saudi Arabia.


What role does the media play in supporting cultural exchange and the sharing of Saudi Arabia’s identity regionally and worldwide?

Saudi Arabia occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, and is the land of Islam. The cultural identities Saudi Arabian citizens express are principally those of Muslim and Arab, linking them to millions of people beyond the nation’s borders. Identities connected to the traditional ways of life of the farmers, fishermen, craftspeople and artisans, merchants, caravaneers, and long-distance traders are still evident even as economic changes have transformed or ended those ways of life. Each geographic region has diverse local customs and histories. However, all the regions share traditional ways of life. They do share a common history of development.

The state and people engage in the creation of a national cultural heritage through the preservation or reconstruction of elements from the past that are seen as embodying the traditional culture. The annual Janadriyah festival is an embodiment of this, and Saudi Arabia invites a special guest country, every year, to share their culture with them with an exclusive pavilion. The festival is the pinnacle of exhibiting Saudi culture. The media extensively covers this and projects the spiritual, historical and community features for the world to see.

The media’s role is pivotal as the festival activities generate interest and enthusiasm among the citizens and residents, who too become part of the dissemination of the Saudi cultural identity, like the media.

The media also highlights the efforts of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, who have begun the preservation of old houses and mosques, the use of traditional motifs in new buildings and the setting up of museums and areas that unveil typical, traditional lifestyles to sustain our culture in this modern era.

And it is the media, both Arabic and English, that is the medium through which the world sees this culture. The media also highlights the government’s efforts in preserving our cultural identity.

The media has been a proponent of the main art form in Saudi Arabia, that is Arabic literature. The media has played a big role in giving artists a new platform and making them known locally and globally. Painting and sculpture are practiced and local artists are increasingly finding space worldwide. But it is the traditional and rich variety of folk art in weaving, decorative arts, furniture making, and making of jewelry in both traditional and modern styles that has become concentrated in certain areas of the kingdom that needs to be projected by the media.

The Saudi Scholarship students, who have been sent to different parts of the world, can strengthen these cultural bonds with knowledge sharing that would not only project the Saudi traditions but also provide a clear picture to the world. And in this the media has a strong and leading role to play.


As a leader in the media and Chairman of Saudi’s Board of Journalistic Institutions, how will you evaluate the recent trend of the kingdom towards media openness?

We have always been in step with the times, and have been working to serve the best interest of the country and the citizen. We have matured over the years and our media channels and platforms transmit events and news, abiding by the highest international and professional quality standards. We also adopt state-of-the-art technologies and hire qualified human resources to ensure we attain our main objective, which is to become a benchmark for media institutions in the kingdom and the Arabian Gulf.


Can you give us an overview of Okaz Organization?

Our founding principles comprise a set of core values in which all Okaz stakeholders believe. These include: hard work; giving; commitment; dedication; acumen; belonging and loyalty; innovation; the sense of initiative and creativity; continuous development within an environment of humility and principles; in addition to a set of basic professional values including accuracy, objectivity, credibility, and customer satisfaction above all. And this we have striven to instill in the organization.

Okaz is one of the leading local media organizations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with three publications under its umbrella, namely: Okaz, the all-encompassing newspaper; Saudi Gazette, the English daily; and Al Nadi, the sports and youth newspaper.

With changing times, we have now entered the digital sphere in a big way and are emerging as one of the pioneering players in the social media platforms. Though headquartered in Jeddah, the institution owns and manages several regional branches and offices in many cities in the kingdom as well as in the Gulf, Arab and international capitals.


What would you describe as the group’s milestone achievements to date and what is your vision of the group’s future?

The many achievements of Okaz are the direct result of the wisdom of the organization’s leaders, who were fully aware and committed to its mission of journalistic superiority, cultural enlightenment and responsible entertainment, as they realized the organization’s important role in the nation’s development throughout the past three decades. The achievements are many and to pick one would be difficult. But it is the fact that Okaz has always been pioneering in this field by staying in touch with the times is a major achievement, and it is this leadership role that has enabled us to sustain a synergy between traditional and new media.

As a newspaper, Okaz is the leading Arabic daily in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the highest readership rate and the best quality articles. The newspaper enjoys an excellent reputation in the region as well, with its long and proven track record in journalism. With the growing need to inform English-speaking readers of life inside the kingdom, as well as of the country’s achievements and foreign policy, the Okaz Organization for Press & Publishing decided to publish the Saudi Gazette newspaper. Al Nadi newspaper started as a special magazine insert published with Okaz, but became an independent weekly sports magazine published every Thursday as the first Saudi magazine dedicated to local, regional and international sports events.

With regard to its vision, the Okaz group aims to become a national media pillar, working to serve the best interest of the country and the citizens. We encourage people to do good; we defend everything that is righteous and just, and actively contribute to the development and growth of the media industry by raising the bar of journalistic professionalism across all our daily publications. We convey the truth and spread it to all social segments to educate and cultivate the wider public. We also contribute to the enlightenment of our audience and raise public awareness amongst social strata, while endorsing the government’s holistic efforts for political, economic and social growth. We will also play a key role in promoting the kingdom’s culture, defending its policies and causes, and highlighting its positive aspects to the world.


How is the Okaz Organization for Press and Publication utilizing social media to take part in this digital conversation?

Okaz has been a pioneer in this digital revolution. The advent of the internet brought about a sea change in the mode of communication and also in the ways of doing business. It began a powerful global conversation and through the virtual superhighway people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge speedily. It has transformed business practices globally. We too have adopted and adapted to the digital landscape in the media industry, but have been pragmatic in our approach.

It has allowed for diversity of thought and has made us think out of the box. Organizations that want to stay relevant in this increasingly digitally dominated global market must embrace diversity, in how they think, act and innovate. That’s what we have done. We have synced our traditional media with increasingly new digital media platforms and employed diversified methods to grow our business though digital marketing, e-commerce, and new media journalism.

But it is the emerging social media platforms that have enhanced reader engagement. And we have redoubled our focus on it. A significant number of readers rely primarily on their smartphones for access to pretty much everything. As more people migrate online, fewer people are reading physical newspapers, and we are ready with our strategy to cater to this segment. The media world is changing so rapidly it has been difficult for many outlets to figure out how to adapt. Savvy media outlets have recognized the audience’s hunger for mobile news, and have adapted. We too have adapted by entering this new space, where speed and quality, a hallmark of Okaz, will always be the difference maker and the biggest attraction for consumers.


The Saudi Gazette newspaper appointed the country’s first female editor-in-chief in what has been called a historic move in the kingdom. Females now represent over 50% of university graduates, but only 16% of the workforce – still a low percentage compared to the other G20 countries. Could you tell us a bit more about the historic move? How would you evaluate the role of your organization as a pioneer for women empowerment within your industry?

The decision to appoint a Saudi woman, Somayya Jabarti, as Editor-in-Chief of a Saudi English daily – Saudi Gazette – was based on her qualifications, experience and professionalism regardless of gender.

The authorities supported the choice and appointment. The decision was in line with the government’s woman-supportive events, and pro-woman progression such as Saudi women being appointed to the Shoura Council. Once the appointment was announced, we expected the confirmation smoothly, as rejection of the move was not expected even from the board or general assembly. They too welcomed and supported the matter. The appointment was welcomed and approved all over the kingdom with approval echoing globally.

We saw her capabilities, and her performance first hand, and on this basis the decision was made. In addition, there was a realization in regards to the magnitude and effect of such a move especially given that Okaz is a pioneer media house in the kingdom. So for us to take a lead with such a decision is aligned with Okaz’s vision and mission of always being ahead and in the forefront.


Do you think having a greater proportion of women in the workforce would be good for Saudi Arabia? What are the main challenges and opportunities for women in the workplace looking ahead?

The Okaz company employed the first woman 35 years ago or more, and it began in the editorial area of the Okaz newspaper. At the time, the Okaz company was in the old building, and the women were located at a separate building, which somewhat hindered communication. But after moving to the new building, which was planned with women sections in mind, this issue was resolved.

The women employed in the Okaz company make up 15% of all employees and we are definitely keen on increasing the ratio in favor women, not just to fulfill a quota nor for employing women for the sake of their being women. We appreciate meritocracy and we employ women on their merits. They are employed, apart from in editorial areas, in HR, digital marketing, advertising, customer service, marketing, as sales agents etc. In recent years more women in the Okaz company have been employed in leading positions. For example, the head of digital marketing is a woman, the leading supervisor of customer service is a woman and the training consultant heading our training department is a woman.

In my opinion, where work is concerned, a woman is dedicated to her job more than a man; she is ambitious and she strives hard, especially where our country is concerned, to prove herself, that she is equal to any man professionally or even better. Now is the time for women.

Yes, there are some traditional norms that obstruct or challenge women’s entry into the workforce, obstruct her progress in the workforce. Other issues related to the Labor Ministry such as segregation too are challenges they encounter, and mobility is also an issue especially in the absence of public transportation

I do not believe there are many professional areas that can be deemed as off-limits for women’s employment. I, myself, am a father of two young women, and like any other parent, I support their aspirations and dreams with 100% support. I want whatever they want.