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Ibrahim Al Abed, who engaged with foreign media for UAE, passes away
New Delhi, October 21, 2020
Ibrahim Al Abed, one of the most prominent media personalities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the wider Arab world and who engaged with the foreign media on behalf of the UAE government for decades, passed away in Abu Dhabi yesterday. He was 78.
Al Abed was the head of the External Relations division of the Ministry of UAE's Ministry of Information and Culture, for a long time, the founder of the UAE's official news agency, WAM, and served for many years as the head of the country's National Media Council. He also functioned as the de facto spokesman of the UAE government during all those years. From 2016 until his death, he served as Adviser to the Chairman of the National Media Council.
But Ibrahim Al Abed was much more than all the positions he held. The positions he held changed, but his inflence and contribution to the UAE extended beyond all those.
Al Abed was usually the first UAE official that most foreign journalists posted in the UAE met and he remained a friend with them for ever, as I discovered when I first met him in his office in the Ministry of Information & Culture in Abu Dhabi, in early 1993.
I was posted as the Gulf & Middle East correspondent for UNI, the Indian news agency, with our office in Dubai. Like most other foreign correspondents posted in the UAE, my visa, too, was sponsored by the Ministry of Information & Culture, and that meant we had to travel to Abu Dhabi regularly for one thing or the other. Dropping in on Al Abed was something I did on all those trips.
I was introduced to Al Abed by my predecessor Gulshan Luthra, with whom he maintained a friendship that lasted all these years. We first met in Delhi before I took up my posting and then again soon after landing in the UAE. I met him regularly during the seven years that I was posted in the UAE and benefited immensely from his friendship, his counsel, his hospitality and his amazing insights into events and developments in the region.
Al Abed remained a friend even after I returned to India and we spoke regularly on the phone. We met again in Abu Dhabi during trips I made to the UAE and also at other places where we were attending events. We also met on a couple of occasions in Delhi, when he accompanied UAE dignitaries to India and took time out to visit us in UNI.
In the years that followed, I resigned as the Editor of UNI and set up NetIndian as an independent online media venture. He would always inquire about how our project was faring and kept asking if there was anything he could do to help.
Born as a Palestinian, Al Abed fled on his father's shoulders during the 1948 war. He studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated with political science and public administration major.
He moved to the UAE in 1975, just a few years after the country was formed as a federation of seven emirates.
Al Abed set up WAM in 1977. In the following year, with the help of his friend Peter Hellyer, another prominent media figure in the UAE, the agency launched an English wire service.
Over the years, during which he became an Emirati citizen, Al Abed served as the media adviser to several generations of UAE officials. Al Abed also dedicated himself to documenting the critical period of the UAE's establishment and its many achievements.
Al Abed was also the author of more than a dozen books. He also edited for many years the annual yearbook of the Ministry of Information and Culture and of the National Media Council, as well as co-editing several major academic studies of the Emirates.
What stood out in our engagement with him was his professionalism and his strong love for the UAE. Whenever we visited him in his office, apart from being welcomed by his sparkling smile and the coffee that his Malayali office boy served us, we also would end up meeting and talking with journalists from different parts of the world.
His office was full of books -- many of which he wrote -- and newspapers and magazines and there was always great conversation.
One thing became clear to us very soon. Al Abed wielded quiet influence that went far, far beyond any of the official positions he held. There was almost no problem that he could not solve for you, with just a phone call. He had access to all the people that mattered and they held him in great esteem. And the knowledge that Al Abed was just a phone call away, in case you needed any help, was a great reassurance for foreign journalists in the UAE.
But he carried all this, as well as his intellectual qualities and his scholarship, lightly and was always a rare model of humility and modesty.
Equally important, he never tried to influence what we reported on the UAE. He was always available for information, insight and would arrange to put you in touch with officials who could brief you. But he never told us to write or not write. Today, the UAE has grown into a major media hub in the region and if the country is a great and friendly place for journalists, Al Abed had a major role in creating that welcoming environment.
Al Abed always answered and returned phone calls, no matter what the time. And when he said something would be done, you could rest assured that it would be.
His passing away is a personal loss for all the journalists who were posted in the UAE and those who worked for local newspapers and media organisations. For many of the local journalists, he was a mentor and father-figure.
The fact that he is no longer around to take those phone calls and reassure and guide us will take a lot of time to get used to.