Covering the Middle East, Web style

For someone whose Web site has been attacked repeatedly by hackers, Ramzi Khoury, editor in chief of the portal Al-Bawaba.Com, is surprisingly upbeat.

Al-Bawaba was among several sites caught in the crossfire last month when politically motivated hackers took the Israeli-Palestinian conflict online, launching a series of denial-of-service attacks. At one point, Al-Bawaba’s forum was bombarded with thousands of messages by posters who were disheartened by its coverage of the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It’s not difficult to see the reasons why the Amman, Jordan-based portal is a target for hack attacks – for one, it is an independent publication free of government ownership, a rarity as little as two years ago in the Middle East. Since violence erupted in September, Al-Bawaba, along with sites Arabia Online and Ha’aretz, has seen its traffic double. Khoury believes the site’s growing influence is a reason for the attention and the hack attacks: “Obviously, this is a portal that is making a difference,” he states with obvious pride.

In April of last year, the Internet accelerator firm THCG tapped Khoury, a seasoned businessman and journalist with an activist streak, to head up the Web portal’s content division and provide objective, independent online news coverage to the Middle East. Published in both English and Arabic, the site reaches an audience that is rapidly increasing in size: Net users in the Arab world currently number 1.9 million, but are expected to grow to 12 million by 2002, according to a February survey by Internet Arab World magazine. At the same time, Khoury points out that there is a great demand for Web pages in Arabic: for every 13,000 pages in English there is only one page in Arabic, a situation that he hopes Al-Bawaba will change as well.

Launched last October, Al-Bawaba (which means “gateway” in Arabic) now employs 70 freelance journalists based throughout the Middle East, U.S., and U.K. As editor in chief, Khoury oversees the site’s news coverage and user forums, covering topics from politics and videogames to more taboo subjects such as sex and health. The site received more than 8 million page views last month, according to Khoury – not a bad figure for a year-old site that hasn’t yet launched an advertising campaign.

An activist as well as a journalist, Khoury says he has championed two causes throughout his life: the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of Western-style democracy in the Middle East. He became politically active as a high school student in Amman and went on to campaign for the liberation of Palestine as a computer science and political science major at Richmond University in London in the early ’80s. His first job united his dual interests in politics and journalism: He worked on a TV documentary called The Sword of Islam, about the rise of political Islam, or Islamism, in Lebanon and Egypt. In journalism, Khoury saw the perfect tool for accomplishing his causes: He could inform the world of his views on the Middle East and help introduce the revolutionary concept of free speech to his own country, paving the way for democracy.

After graduating from school, Khoury initially focused his efforts on business – a more profitable venture than journalism. In 1987, a year after graduating from college, he moved to the United States to become president of the Indianapolis-based International Trading Partners, a company that exported American goods to the Middle East. In his spare time, he began working as a political columnist and economic analyst for the World News Link agency and assorted Arab TV and radio programs. By 1993, having returned to Amman, he was the campaign manager for Toujan Faisal’s successful bid to be the first female member of Jordan’s Parliament. He began working for the Jordan Times, and in 1997, founded and became editor in chief of the Arab Daily, an independent English language newspaper, where he was able to focus his interests in business and journalism efforts on a single project.

Two years later, Al-Bawaba gave Khoury the chance to cover news for a broader audience on the Internet, a medium that he sees as an ideal way to publish news in the Middle East. In socially restricted countries like Saudi Arabia, he adds, the Net has changed the lives of many people, particularly women, who are now able to meet online and discuss personal or political issues openly in a way they would not ordinarily be able to do. “Just the fact that information is available is huge here,” he says.

The growing number of visitors to Al-Bawaba is encouraging to Khoury from a political perspective as well as from a business standpoint: “My dream has always been to … come up with a channel for people to learn what is going on in their life,” he says. “This media has to be independent; it cannot be owned by government or private interests. The Internet is the only place where you can do that.”