In March 2022, I flew to Dubai on an Emirates plane packed with sunseekers, most of whom were more interested in cocktails on the beach than politics.
My trip, paid for by the Dubai tourist board, was intended as an investigation into the Jewish community in the emirate. The Abraham Accords had recently been signed, heralding new “normalised” relations with Israel.
Direct flights to and from Tel Aviv had launched, and I had seen footage of significant endorsement of Jewish symbols, such as a massive menorah at the foot of the Burj Khalifa, and even the singing of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, when the Israeli president Isaac Herzog had visited earlier in the year.
I was impressed by what I found. The Jews of Dubai, a community of just a few hundred, seemed happy. Some among the more visibly religious said they actually felt safer in the Emirates than in Brooklyn, where their religious garb had begun to attract regular street harassment.
I also heard excited talk about the giant new synagogue being built in Abu Dhabi. An emblem of expensive high-design, the Moses Ben Maimon synagogue, part of the Abrahamic Family House faith complex, was completed a little under a year later.
We ate, drank and were merry. I went home feeling broadly positive about Jews in Dubai.
At the same time, I felt safe in the knowledge that had I wanted to write something deeply critical in a British newspaper, or wanted to publish an investigation revealing some sort of mistreatment of other minorities, I could have written up my findings without impediment. There was a good chance I would even have been praised by my editor for doing so.
I fear that this may cease to be the case if the takeover of The Telegraph by a fund backed by Dubai’s neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi goes through.
To the shock and consternation of many, including myself, this looks dangerously likely. The Government only acted to pause the deal and inquire into its implications for press freedom after a great deal of money had already changed hands.
The Abu Dhabi-backed fund RedBird IMI has already enabled the paying off of the debts owed to Lloyds Bank by the current owners of The Telegraph through a complex loan arrangement.
Fellow female Telegraph columnists have written about what the new ownership could mean for them, not just as journalists reliant on Western standards of press freedom, but also specifically as female journalists.
Their concerns are understandable. As a cluster of authoritarian Islamic monarchies, the United Arab Emirates has a clearly and indisputably sub-Western framework for dealing with matters concerned with gender, sex and sexuality.
My colleagues worry about their standing at the paper as outspoken female columnists, as well as their ability to write freely about the sort of gender-related issues they may wish to cover.
My concerns build on these. As a writer with a keen personal and journalistic interest in anti-Semitism, anti-Westernism and misogyny in the Middle East, it is unclear to me whether I will be able to fully explore these concerns in a paper owned by Abu Dhabi.
Will its owners be happy for me, a Zionist Jewish woman, to write pieces criticising the foul and violent rhetoric coming from too many mosques since October 7?
Will I be able – even encouraged, as I have been so far – to interview brave women such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Yasmine Mohammed, staunch critics of the religion into which they were born, and clearsighted about anti-Semitism and the troublesome nature of the dominant version of the pro-Palestine cause?
Sure, RedBird is fronted by Jeff Zucker, a former president of CNN, who insists that press freedom will be protected. That’s all very well, but it’s difficult to feel confident that this can be achieved. How would it work in messy practice?
Who would ensure it? What mechanisms would be put in place? Zucker has already apparently ruled out restructuring, or bringing in new investors to appease regulators.
How could we be assured that content criticising the UAE – over, for instance, its lavish welcome for the Russian president Vladimir Putin – would be free to run?
State ownership of newspapers brings with it a unique and deeply troubling set of questions. The Telegraph and The Spectator are very expensive. They have already cost RedBird a pretty penny. It is only logical to assume that Abu Dhabi wants something in return, and it will probably take a little more than diversifying revenue sources away from the hundreds of billions of dollars made from oil and gas to make it worthwhile. It seems most likely that the motivation is influence. And if the paper is being used for influence, that raises the ugly prospect of editorial interference.
Some leopards can change their spots. I never thought I’d hear Hatikva sung in an Arab land. The Abraham Accords are a fine achievement. But when it comes to the ownership of The Telegraph, we are not talking about a leopard-sized problem. We are discussing a state-backed investment vehicle, and its agenda for this newspaper. Against this, the freedom of the press and the British Government itself appear to be flailing.