Ibrahim Al Abed: the end of an era

Ibrahim al Abed (L), with the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum

Pat Lancaster remembers Ibrahim Al Abed

It is with great sadness The Middle East Online mourns the death on 20th October 2020 of one of the true pioneers of journalism in our region, Ibrahim Al Abed, aged 79, the founder of the UAE’s state-run WAM news agency and the head of the country’s National Media Council (NMC).

“Five decades Ibrahim spent working tirelessly until the last day,” Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum wrote on Twitter.

To all of those who knew him, myself included, it was no surprise to learn that the great man was at his desk in the NMC offices until his very last day on earth. To journalists from across the globe Mr Ibrahim, as he was fondly known, was the go-to person for everything to do with the UAE. His knowledge of his adopted country was, it often seemed, infinite. And, in the unlikely event that he did not have the information you might require at his fingertips, he would always find it and pass it on at speed. His phone was always answered, his door was always open.

Over half a century, he watched the United Arab Emirates grow – skyscraper by skyscraper – from seven small sheikhdoms to the thriving, regional powerhouse it is today.

A Palestinian by birth, Mr Ibrahim fled on his father’s shoulders during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s establishment, his longtime colleague at the NMC and friend, Peter Hellyer, said. Known as the “naqba,” or “catastrophe” in Arabic, the conflict uprooted hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their ancestral homes.

Al-Abed studied at the American University of Beirut and served as a Palestinian student leader before graduating with a degree in political science. He moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1975,  just a few years after the federation’s creation out of the seven sheikhdoms the British referred to as the Trucial States. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, moved to the UAE to help create the country, serving in government ministries and in its oil fields.

In 1977, Al-Abed created the WAM news agency and a year later, helped Peter Hellyer, another media stalwart,  set up the agency’s English wire service.  He also served as a trusted media adviser to generations of Emirati government officials, later becoming an Emirati citizen himself.

With a ready smile and a generous measure of old world charm, Ibrahim al Abed was the consummate professional. A pioneer who became a giant in Middle East media

At the time of his arrival, he once recounted, there were just two newspapers and a fledgling radio and television scene — not the vast landscape of today that sees foreign media use Dubai Media City and Abu Dhabi as safe bases to cover a region long prone to conflict.

“The very important development for the media in the UAE was the creation of the Dubai media zone. … When it started, we were wondering what are we going to have,” al-Abed told the Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al-Arabiya in 2018. “It turned out that we have now over 2,000 organizations, companies, working in Dubai media zone.”

That the UAE became  a hub for the international media, was a source of great pride to Mr. Ibrahim and his contribution to the country achieving such status can not be over-estimated. He worked tirelessly to promote his adopted country and, with a newsman’s nose, he knew exactly the kind of stories that would grab the imagination of visiting media. Individually, or as a group, journalists would be invited to his Abu Dhabi office, to sit down and discuss the issues of the day. Over a cup of coffee, Mr Ibrahim would present his business card and invite them to be in touch should they need further assistance. He treated all of us with the same consideration, courtesy and a measure of the old world charm and hospitality that has, so sadly, disappeared from much of the Arab world in recent years.

Ibrahim Al Abed is survived by his wife, three children and grandchildren, to whom we send our deepest condolences.