No ‘Gupte Touch’? Ex-Sun Columnist Leaves Khaleej Times Less Than 2 Weeks On Job, Says Dubai Paper Has Become ‘Government Organ’

pranay_gupte_dubai_khaleej.jpgIt’s been a rough month for Pranay Gupte. Less than two weeks after the former New York Sun columnist took a job as executive editor at the Dubai-based Khaleej Times — where he said he vowed to put the “Gupte touch” on the paper — Gupte is back in New York. The latest sea change comes on the heels of his claim that the Sun hijacked his “Lunch at the Four Seasons” column — a charge Sun editor Seth Lipsky denied.

Gupte arrived back in New York late yesterday afternoon and called FishbowlNY to say he would send us an e-mail explaining “the situation at Khaleej.”

Calls and e-mails to the Khaleej Times were left unreturned.

We received Gupte’s long, bizarre, completely unedited, unfactchecked story this morning:

—–Original Message—–

From: Pranay Gupte

Sent: Friday, October 13, 2006 10:19 AM

To: Dylan Stableford

Subject: Dubai update

I returned to New York yesterday afternoon (Thursday) from Dubai, where I spent 13 days that could be best described as rather weird.

I’d gone there to be executive editor/business of Khaleej Times, one of the best-known English-language newspapers in the Middle East. Founded 28 years ago in Dubai (one of the seven of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates), the paper’s editorial quality had deteriorated dramatically on account of poor leadership and scandalous treatment of reporters and editors. I had been asked to re-invent the business section, launch a weekly business magazine, and eventually transform the entire newspaper as it faced increasingly sharp competition from local newspapers, some of them started by the government of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the vice president of the U.A.E.

Well, last Tuesday, the Sheikh’s government dismissed the chairman of the Galadari Group, Mohammed Galadari, and also the group’s entire board of directors. The group owns 11 companies, including Khaleej Times, Mazda dealerships, the Baskin-Robbins franchise, and Intercontinental Hotels in Middle East several countries. The government is also taking a 30 percent interest in the Galadari Group; it’s converting what Mr. Galadari owes government institutions into equity in the company.

This means, in effect, that Khaleej Times, long a relatively independent voice in Middle East journalism, immediately becomes a government organ.

An interim three-person executive committee has been named. (It includes Mr. Galadari — probably because he owns more than $700 million worth of shares in the group, which was founded by his late father and uncle, but he has no veto power. Only a simple majority vote is needed to pass management decisions.) The chief operating officer of company, Mr. Kamal Raj Shah, will report to this committee. The editor of Khaleej Times, Mr. Prem Chandran, was dismissed today – unceremoniously – and reportedly frog-marched from his office. He had served as editor for three years, after his predecessor, Mr. Rahul Singh of India, resigned in protest against Mr. Galadari’s policies.

The government’s action is said to be prompted by Mr. Galadari’s erratic behavior, which included, among other things, bringing his dog to the paper, and asking editors to fetch dog biscuits for the animal; and verbal and physical abuse of editors and top management, often in public and using ethnic scatology.

Sheikh Mohammed was also said to be distressed by Mr. Galadari’s use of Khaleej Times as a vehicle for personal vendettas. For example, he went to great lengths to attack countries that do huge trade with UAE, and/or those that invest money in Dubai. At a time when the Sheikh is keen to strengthen ties with India because of its vibrant economy, Mr. Galadari kept up a drumbeat of hostility against India and Indians, while demonstrating partisanship about Pakistan. The irony is that a vast majority of expats in Dubai are from India. One of Mr. Galadari’s favorite targets was the Indian consul-general in Dubai, Mr. Yash K. Sinha. At one point, editors were forbidden to publish photographs of Mr. Sinha – who’s considered a star of the Indian Foreign Service, and is about to become India’s ambassador to Venezuela – but encouraged to vilify him in headlines and stories.

Sheikh Mohammed has been reported to be embarrassed by Khaleej Times’s recent journalism. I saw for myself how riddled with mistakes the paper is, and how negligently edited. I was appalled by the drumbeat of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic coverage. Because I’m a graduate of Brandeis University, and have written from time to time about the Middle East peace process (or lack thereof), I was told that I was perceived as being “too pro-Jewish.” (For the record, I consider myself secular; I was Jesuit-educated in my birthplace of Bombay, India, before I came to America to attend Brandeis and Columbia Universities on scholarships. I am strongly supportive of Israel’s right to exist, and I also believe that both Arabs and Jews need to rededicate themselves to the idea of living together in peace and security in the Middle East. During my 40 years in mainstream international journalism, I have developed enduring friendships and contacts on both sides of the “divide.”)

In my view, Khaleej Times’s executives are engaging in falsehoods about the paper’s daily circulation. They insist that it is 77,000; but circulation is reliably reported to have fallen to 25,000 — and still falling. Khaleej Times’s main competitor, Gulf News, meanwhile is touching 100,000 each day.

Sheikh Mohammed, who has set out to establish Dubai as a financial-services hub and tourism center of the Gulf, has also been said to be concerned over the group’s management practices, and corruption within the company. The internecine quarreling within the Galadari family clearly upset him. Mohammed Galadari has been openly feuding with his aunt, and his sisters and their husbands. It’s interesting, therefore, that the new interim executive committee that replaces the old board includes the aunt, Mrs. Farrah Naz Alam Khan, and a Galadari brother-in-law (and bitter foe), Sameer Gargash (whose brother is a member of Sheikh Mohammed’s cabinet).

I had accepted the position of executive editor/business at Khaleej Times at the invitation of the COO, Mr. Shah, and the old board. Now that Khaleej Times has become a government newspaper, with all the attendant implications, I feel that it would be impossible for an American journalist who believes in an unfettered press to swear allegiance to what is most certainly likely to be a megaphone for the ruler of Dubai, however benign and visionary he may be.

I was told all decisions taken by Mohammed Galadari and the old board after September 20, 2006 (the day that Sheikh Mohammed’s decree concerning the Galadari Group was supposed communicated to the group) have been declared null and void. This would presumably mean all hiring, personnel, purchases, etc.

I also understand that plans are being drawn up to shut down Khaleej Times and/or merge it with Emirates Today, an English-language daily owned by the Sheikh.

Khaleej Times had approached The Wall Street Journal to insert a daily branded WSJ edition in the paper (KT). But I was told that the new board is no longer interested in an association with WSJ. The paper had also informally invited – through my interlocution — Mr. Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Prof. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum in Geneva, and world-famous trade guru Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, to a conference it was planning to host in Dubai. But when I left, I was told that Khaleej Times was no longer interested in getting these well-known individuals to Dubai.

Anyway, it’s been an unusual time for me in Dubai — a refresher course in petty politics and high intrigue. Most of all, it was an utter waste of time and energy. But look at it this way: I racked up impressive mileage on what surely has to be the world’s best airline, Emirates Airline.

So here’s the score from the Gulf: Government: 1; private-sector press: 0. The Sheikh has become a media baron. What’s next? An American newspaper or newsmagazine ripe for acquiring? Stay tuned – and don’t be surprised.

FishbowlNY’s Gupte Coverage:

  • Sun Editor On ‘Four Seasons’ Spat: We ‘Never Lied About Anything’
  • Ex-‘Lunch At Four Seasons’ Columnist Says New York Sun Lied, Stole Column
  • Defamed ‘Four Seasons’ Sun Columnist Heads To Dubai