On the evening of 16 April, Martin Newland, editor-in-chief of The National, unveiled the front page of the world’s newest daily newspaper at a gathering of the great and the good in Abu Dhabi’s monumental Emirates Palace hotel.

The National is made of ink and paper, but it is different in practically every other respect to any newspaper previously launched in the region.

Its editorial team of 200 is the largest working on an English-language daily in the Middle East. It includes former members of famous newspaper teams, including Newland himself, editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph from 2003-05.

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The National’s most distinctive characteristic is that it is owned by one of the world’s richest governments and has unlimited funding.

So much choice

The newspaper will be the biggest new launch of 2008 and is one of the most ambitious for more than a decade. But there is no obvious business case for The National.

Fewer than 500,000 adults with English as their mother tongue live in the UAE. Addressing their needs on a daily basis are five newspapers of varying degrees of adequacy: Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Gulf Today and the free-distribution 7Days, all privately-owned, and Emirates Business 24/7, part of the Dubai Government’s Arab Media Group.

No English-language newspaper market in the world has so much choice on a per capita basis. If there is a gap, it is probably for a popular newspaper aimed at Hindi speakers.

Bulky as a Sunday paper

But the clue is that none of the five are printed in Abu Dhabi. Since its government closed Emirates News in the 1990s, the emirate has relied on others to supply its resident Western expatriate newspaper buyers. It now has its own voice once more.

The National has strengths and weaknesses. It has adopted a broadsheet format – which is going out of favour in the West – combined with a modern design that uses white space and large colour photographs. Its editorial management has decades of experience working on top newspapers. At least a dozen of The National’s senior reporters have credible experience working for leading news media operations.

The newspaper’s breadth of coverage is impressive. It includes about 20 pages of business news and daily sports and arts supplements. The first edition was as bulky as a British Sunday newspaper. A plan for a seven-day operation is in hand.

Press freedom?

But this is where the questions begin. Newland has finessed the issue of ‘press freedom’ in interviews before the launch. This is wise. The phrase is one of the most misused in the English language. No country allows the media unrestricted freedom to print or broadcast whatever it likes. Apart from libel laws and constraints on reporting of private matters, every editor comes under pressure from the state. In the developing world, this is often obvious and crude. But it exists everywhere.

The US government employs press officers that outnumber those reporting on its activities several times over. The BBC is owned by the British people but controlled by the state – as the corporation was reminded when a reporter charged the government of distorting the case for the 2003 Iraq war. Every major corporation has large communications teams to ensure good news is emphasised and bad news suppressed.

In the UAE, the proliferation of the media, particularly English newspapers, has eased restrictions on reporting in the past five years. But the federation is some distance from being a place where newspapers can fearlessly criticise government policy.

Media balancing act

Attacks on its leaders remain taboo. The UAE press law, which is rarely applied in its full force, is archaic. The federation is not yet ready for a Western-style media industry, and may never be.

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, was at The National’s launch event, in a sign that he is behind the project. The inside view is that Sheikh Mohammed wants a newspaper that reports on a federation-wide basis and is prepared to challenge official complacency wherever it exists. Only a newspaper with support at the highest levels could contemplate such a delicate mission.

The Abu Dhabi government connection is the newspaper’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. When the going gets tough, the backing of Abu Dhabi’s next ruler and apparent heir to the federation’s presidency will be handy. But it is impossible to argue that The National is independent. It will be a media balancing act of the highest order. I wish its team success.