From Russia, not much love: Al Arabiya’s man in Moscow on his work
Mazen Abbas, the news channel’s Russia correspondent, describes his tricky dealings with officials in telling Russia’s story to the Arab world
The world’s attention is on Russia – and, for viewers of the Al Arabiya News Channel at least, that means many eyeballs focused on Mazen Abbas.
As the Arabic news channel’s man in Moscow, Abbas reports on the latest political developments in Russia at a critical time given the escalation of tensions over Ukraine.
But getting answers from officials is no easy task, Abbas says, giving the rather chilly reception to international media outlets.
Abbas has been in Russia since 1997, and before being a journalist worked as a doctor. “Journalism was more of a hobby than a source of income,” he says of his career before the full-time switch to media.
Aside from reporting for Al Arabiya, Abbas has written countless articles, published in Russian and Egyptian media outlets. He is Egyptian and studied in Damascus, where he contributed to a monthly magazine called Majalet Masr (Egypt Magazine).
Abbas told Inside the Newsroom about the challenges of reporting from Russia, as well as how Moscow’s stance relates to the Arab world.
Q. What are the challenges you face covering the current situation in Russia? Are they the same difficulties you witnesses earlier in your career?
Of course there are new elements, but in general international news outlets are not welcomed. Let’s agree on the concept that totalitarian regimes do not fancy the media, especially if the outlets are foreign, because they have no authority on them.
There definitely are bureaucratic obstacles because there are different views, and there is a criticism of the Russian stance that is covered by the channel, even through Russian experts.
Q. Are Russian officials interested in communicating with the Arab public, or the Arab viewer?
Of course not. Speaking on an official level, in the doctrine of Russia's foreign policy, Arabs come in the fifth rank, following former Soviet countries, Europe, the U.S. and China respectively. So it is not a priority, especially given that the economic ties between them are weak.
Q. How do you make news from Russia relevant to Arab viewers?
It is not true that Russian or Ukrainian news is not relevant to the Arab viewer. I am constantly surprised to see hundreds of people who move to Russia or Ukraine to establish businesses or work or whatever. These countries are open now so they attract a lot of people.
At the same time, a lot of institutions and companies have taken interest in these countries, but of course all of these interested people did not find information about these countries because the Arab news outlets do not get involved in Russia, Ukraine, or other countries, and they don't consider them to be important or relevant news. This has led to many violations and offenses.
[Arab] media interest is also a little conservative, focusing only on news relevant to Arabs. But even if they are not directly relevant, they certainly have an influence. Despite that the current Russia-Ukraine crisis is really a fight between Russia and Europe over Ukraine, but if you look at it, the people negotiating over Syria are fighting! At the end of the day, we are living in an international community and go by international laws; we are not isolated.
Q. What is your take on Russia’s political stance?
During the second term of Putin's presidency, the ruling elite in Russia were aiming towards expanding, or reaching a specific geo-political power. When the changes took place in the Arab region with the Arab Spring, it became very clear that a new world order was forming, and every international power is trying to have the largest role and the strongest power.
Russia also entered this battle, and we noticed that it had a very strong position on Syria, despite the fact that it does not have significant economic interests there, and it never really benefited from Syria economically. But going back to the role in the new world order, and the power, Syria is a gateway that gives [Russia] more power in the region.
When events developed in Ukraine, the West took advantage of the opportunity to somehow start running matters. The trade between Russia and Ukraine reaches to up $60 billion. Back in the days of the Soviet Union, it used to make huge industrial products, and the factories were distributed amongst the republics of the Union. When it collapsed, some products manufactured in Ukraine are still important Russian productions, such as the military industries, so there is an integration which still exists. [Putin] is trying to bring it back to gain his economic power back as well. So when [the West] enters Ukraine, it is like they are entering the heart of Russia.
Therefore, Putin knows he is entering a life-or-death battle. The main economic hub is located in the east and south of Ukraine; these are the places that have the production plants, where mining is, and it is also home to people who speak Russian, or are of Russian origins. So he has a strong card to play.
Q. Putin spoke with sorrow about the collapse of the Soviet Union, can we say he is looking forward to restructuring this power, or is that too far-fetched?
The Soviet Union is technically over and done, but there is a real problem: the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the collapse of many economies, and Russia economy specifically. The Russian economy dropped 40 percent automatically due the distribution of the plants and production.
Maybe it is not exactly the Soviet Union he is aiming for, but rather strengthening his economic power. He also has crises and is trying to better his situation.
Q. Away from work, tell us a little about yourself.
I write sometimes in Russian and Egyptian publications, when I get the chance to. I am also not young, so I have my family and children in Russia, who take up a lot of my time.