In 1974, an English newspaper was perhaps just a dream for the people of Oman. So then, was the birth of Times sheer destiny? To a large extent, yes! Times would not have come into being if that single telex from Singapore had not reached Essa bin Mohammed Al Zedjali's desk while he was serving as director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"But all that is history now," says the man, who has to his credit, the distinction of introducing the first-ever English newspaper in this country. And 35 years later, it is not just the reminiscences of yesteryear that stimulate him, it's the constant urge to grow with the times. The evolution of Times is certainly a story of commitment, though the roads traversed in the process were not always smooth. "The journey has not been easy, but it has been a fulfilling one," says Essa, founder and editor-in-chief of Times of Oman.
"We have grown by leaps and bounds. Muscat Press and Publishing House now has seven publications, including Times of Oman, Al Shabiba, Hi, Al Youm Al Saba, Thursday, Faces and Black & White coming from our stables. The staff strength has increased from eight to 300 and we have 65 per cent market share," says Essa with a smile. And as we retrace our steps back to 1975, the telex tale of Times resurfaces. The much-talked about telex came from a company called Flying Tiger Corporation based in Los Angeles, USA, asking for an over-flight permission and as the director of the department, it was part of Essa Al Zedjali's duty to give permission to commercial flights, military flights and personal flights flying over Oman.
"They sent the telex to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressing the country as, 'Muscat, Oman, Saudi Arabia'. I was extremely furious and kept it for three days without taking any action," says Essa, remembering the past. Infuriated by the content of the telex, Essa could hardly keep his emotions under control. After three days of soul-searching, he asked himself: Should we blame them for making this error or are we are at fault? In the 70s, there were neither any radio nor TV stations. There weren't many embassies either and the absence of an English newspaper kept Oman in obscurity. "If we had a TV station or radio FM service or English newspapers, we could have introduced our country to the outside world. So why blame anyone else? I thought about this and granted them permission," Essa adds. It was then that the idea of Times of Oman germinated in his mind. "I thought, why can't Oman have an English newspaper that would help expatriates read and know about our country? For our subscribers outside, it would be a roving ambassador," he says.
And then, there was no looking back! The newspaper required approval from the Ministry of Information and the necessary steps were taken. "I contacted the Minister of Information, His Highness Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud Al Said, the former minister of foreign affairs. I personally met him and conveyed my idea of an English newspaper to him. I told him the aim of the newspaper was to introduce my country to the outside world. His Highness encouraged me and said, 'We will support you morally, financially and technically!' That was a very big boost for us," says the editor-in-chief.
Ten long months of labour and Times was born! Beginnings are never easy and as expected, it wasn't for Times either. It endured competitive challenges, sustained the growing up pains and had brushes with unforeseen difficulties to become the most popular English daily of Oman.
Nostalgia overwhelms Essa as he talks about the initial days. "It took 10 months of preparation for the newspaper to launch. In those days, it was very difficult to get editorial staff. Hence I contacted my friends like Sheikh Abdallah bin Sakhr Al Amri, who was the first secretary at our embassy in Jeddah, to send me bio‑datas of people interested to work here. And in the meantime, I also spread the word that we were coming out with the first-ever English newspaper. Having Oriental Printing Press was an added advantage as we did not have to depend on any other press for printing," says Essa, his heart swelling with pride.
Time ticked on until D‑Day, February 23, 1975! And Oman witnessed the birth of Times of Oman, the country's first English daily, in an exciting tabloid format! So whom does Essa owe Times' success to? "I owe all this to the telex from Flying Tiger Corporation, who mentioned the country as Muscat, Oman, Saudi Arabia. If it were not for the telex, Times of Oman would not have happened," Essa smiles.
"From typesetting to modern printing, from a weekly to a daily, we have come a long way," he adds. No doubt, February 23 is a day of great significance for Essa, no matter which milestone it crosses. The newspaper has had its share of problems, but it has successfully weathered all storms. And all that has been made possible by the steadfastness of the people involved in its making and its growth year after year.
With time, it broadened its horizon, enlivened its look, intensified its coverage and widened its reach and circulation resulting in one single achievement — making Times of Oman the newspaper that everyone had dreamed of. History always beckons and it's easy to get caught in its sweep. So are we, when we hear some interesting tidbits of the initial weekly from the man behind its success, who candidly admits that he made Times possible even without any journalistic background. "I have a contracting company and trading company besides dealing in pharmaceuticals and livestock, but had no idea about the newspaper business," Essa notes.
"Now, we are marching ahead with time. We have a vision. We want to open offices in Dubai and Singapore," he says, adding, "We are members of WAN and of Gulf Association of Newspapers. These speak of our success story."
As with any new undertaking, Essa agrees there have been as many happy moments as there were worrying ones. "But 35 years is an important milestone to complete and it means we have been successful," concludes Essa, his vision for the future clearly in view, and his pride in the past justifiably shining through.