The impossible is something that cannot be done logically and humanly, whether because the costs are inconceivable or because all options are out of the question or because they conflict with the laws of science and nature.
But the impossible becomes a point of view when one appeals to another type of logic or calculation or when science comes up with opportunities and options that had not previously been available or when ambition and persistence make it possible to realise goals that had previously been unthinkable or that just to think them had been regarded as a stroke of madness.
The title of this article is borrowed from a passage in My Story: 50 memories from 50 years of service, by His Royal Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, and it sums up, to a large extent, the story of Dubai: Dubai, the emirate as it evolved and became involved in the creation of the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai, the city that sprouted an entire and unique civilisation in the midst of a barren desert and that surged to the forefront of the world’s great metropolises within the space of half a century.
Against the backdrop of the many Arab tragedies — the collapse of societies, the failed states and the territorial sovereignties violated by diverse foreign aggressions — success stories are exceptional rarities.
Today’s column is occasioned by the 18th Arab Media Forum (AMF) that just convened in Dubai. Having attended the first edition in 2001, the equations of the possible versus the impossible appear all the more vivid 18 years later.
It is not usual for Arab journalists and media professionals to gather together for two days to focus on issues and concerns related to their profession and its future. It is just as unusual for organisers to ensure that speakers focus on brevity, succinctness and getting their point across.
The sessions lasted an average of 20 minutes and a half an hour at most, so there was little room for protraction, digression and anecdotes.
The result was an intense confrontation with the most important concerns facing the global media at this time.
One also sensed a new kind of “pan-Arabism”. The AMF was not about the press and media in Dubai or the UAE or even the Gulf region, including parts of it outside the Gulf Cooperation Council such as Iraq. It was about “Arab media” from the Gulf to the Atlantic.
The event did not overlook the question of the strains between political authorities and the press, a universal phenomenon about which the US has a new story to tell with every passing day and which is a subject of current concern in the Arab region where the relationship between government and the press is characterised by a great deal of tension and mutual pressure. For example, there was a session dedicated to “The press and politics”.
The session was monitored by the eminent columnist and political analyst Emadeddin Adeeb and the speakers were former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat and current Director of the Editorial Board of Al-Arabiya News Channel Abdulrahman Al-Rashid, former media consultant for President Donald Trump on Middle East Affairs Walid Phares and myself as chairman of the board of directors of Al-Masry Al-Youm.
However, the main subject of the forum was the present and future as embodied in the rise of the “new media” as represented by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social media networks that boast not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of viewers, listeners, audiences or “followers” and “subscribers”, and in which people engage in debates, dialogues and commentaries that range in length from a handful of letters to deep and extensive blogs.
The commentaries often come in the form of images, some amazing and amusing, some in the form of little icons indicating “like” or “dislike”, some measurable in pixels and others kilobytes. But that unlimited media market is immeasurable.
It knows know walls, pages or columns, editorial staffs and, consequently, no censorship, pressure or the occasional looming prison sentence handed down by those who disapprove of certain “editorial policies”.
That market is also easily accessible. It costs relatively little for a group of people to make their presence felt 24/7.
The challenge posed by the “new media” extends beyond distribution rates to the realm of fame and stardom. Celebrities of the conventional media find it painful to see how some of the new social media celebrities garner millions of fans and followers, numbers only attainable by some of the most famous pop stars such as Mohamed Mounir and Nancy Ajram (Sherifa Fadel’s “Haret Al-Saqqayeen” topped 63 million views on the day the AMF opened).
As for journalists in the press and media, they remain at the foot of the mountain of the media celebrities whom some participants at the forum said should be included in forthcoming editions and also awarded prizes.
My contribution to that dialogue on the “danger” or the “opportunity” presented by the new media consisted of two points. The first was that we needed to overcome the “shock” that stuns us whenever we confront something new.
I spoke of the shock that struck a world in which knowledge had been confined to manuscripts until the invention of the press which, in turn, underwent centuries of enormous technological, perceptual and informational evolution.
The same happened with the emergence of radio and then television, which eventually evolved from local or even regional entities to globalised and space-based entities.
The latest advances in the media open new horizons, not just for new subscribers but also for the old-timers of conventional media.
My second point was that the new media are not so much a form of press or journalism as part of new types of processes for emotional release or the expression of feelings, whether through social networking platforms or in the street, as occurred in the Arab Spring, in France with the “yellow vests” movement, or on Wall Street.
Therefore, if there is a challenge, it is not from the “media” or “media figures” but, perhaps, from artists who abound in feelings and sensibilities. As for journalism and the press, its primary function is to “inform” and “think”, both of which are avenues to the “truth”.
The complex process of overcoming “shock” in the face of the new is, in fact, the story of Dubai and the UAE. My Story opens with the origins of the unmanned probe that the UAE had decided to send to Mars, catapulting that country to the ranks of developed nations.
The book closes with the account of the success of that venture: the fruit of the determination to launch the probe in time for it to reach the Red Planet by 2021, the year in which the UAE will celebrate its golden anniversary.
The message is that progress can only be achieved by grappling with the hard questions, questions that have already been posed by countries that preceded us to the ranks of advanced nations.
It is not with fear or timidity that we should approach this, but with courage, resolve and persistence, armed in the faith that we will be able to find the answers when we handle the questions with the seriousness they merit.
Fortunately, the wave in Dubai is having repercussions in other Arab countries which are open to receiving them, having set in motion their own initiatives and visions for reform and development. These, perhaps, are stories for another time.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: When impossible is a point of view