Monday's Middle Eastern papers were mainly preoccupied with Gulf developments, although a statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about his conditions for a possible resumption of negotiations with Syria brought some attention back to Levantine affairs.
It was not all politics on the front page of the London-based Al-Hayat, even though the political implications of a story the newspaper chose to highlight were significant. Under the headline, "The First Saudi Anchorwoman [Appears] on Official Television," Al-Hayat reported that newscaster Bouthaina Nasr recently took up duties at the new Saudi state-owned satellite channel Al-Ikhbariyyah. The paper tried to be subtle but ended up being condescending when it remarked, "Her wearing a hijab [headscarf] did not prevent her from presenting the news in a savvy way." In defending the decision to use a woman, the Saudi deputy information minister remarked that the station's announcers adhered to "legal precepts," by which he meant they were good Muslims. Awkward comments aside, Nasr's appointment was a stride in the kingdom's often-glacial reform process and will have surely provoked the ire of the most conservative religious Saudis. A parallel thread in Al-Hayat's story asked if the new station would have any influence. Observers doubted that Al-Ikhbariyyah's reluctance to deal with domestic Saudi issues would tempt viewers away from rival stations Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya.
The Sunday edition of Beirut's Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, also put a media story on the front page. The paper published a wire report that the Florida-based Harris Corp. had won a $96 million contract to refurbish Iraq's media network, including two new TV channels, two new radio stations, and a national newspaper. Of particular interest to the paper was that one of the partners in the venture (along with the Kuwaiti-Iraqi Al-Fawares) is the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International, a leading regional satellite station and a rival of Hariri's own Future Television. While Al-Mustaqbal ran the story without comment, local readers understood the implicit message: LBCI is collaborating with the U.S. occupation of Iraq—with all the implications this might have for the station's relations with the main power broker in Lebanon, Syria, which would probably not encourage such a thing (unless it could profit from it).
Beirut's Al-Safir led with an Iraq story: The announcement by the influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that only an elected provisional assembly would have the legitimacy to appoint a new Iraqi government next year, when authority will be transferred from the United States to the Iraqis. Sistani's statement throws a spanner in U.S. plans, since the Coalition Provisional Authority would like to control the transfer process by itself naming assemblypersons through caucuses, not elections. This prompted Al-Safir to ask in a headline, "Will Sistani Undermine the Legitimacy of the Political Process?" According to the paper, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a letter to the Iraqi Governing Council last week affirming there was not enough time for a full election process. Sistani released his statement after being told of the contents of Annan's letter, suggesting he may be escalating his opposition to the transfer of power process envisaged by the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer (and backed by Annan). On his side, Bremer, who has already assuaged Sistani on some issues, doesn't want to appear to be bending once again to the whims of a single cleric.
Meanwhile, on the ground, British troops fought with Iraqi protesters in Amara for a second day, after earlier clashes that led to the death of six Iraqis. London's Guardian reported, "British troops with batons waded into the crowd after protesters demanding jobs again besieged the city hall, which serves as the British military's HQ." London's Evening Standard sought to put things in some kind of perspective, noting, "A joint UN/World Bank report put the number of unemployed in Iraq at 50 per cent of the country's 26 million population. Of those, some 400,000 are soldiers."
Several Middle East papers led on the possibility of new Syrian-Israeli talks. In December, Syrian President Bashar Assad called for a resumption of negotiations in an interview with the New York Times, and, following pressure from within his government and the army, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded yesterday with a an offer of his own. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat outlined his conditions, by noting, "Sharon ties negotiations with Damascus to the Syria-Accountability Act," a piece of U.S. congressional legislation that demands, among other things, that Syria give up support for Hezbollah and for Palestinian organizations responsible for suicide bombings in Israel. As a backdrop, papers reported that Syria and Israel conducted two secret meetings last year, until an Israeli leak ended them. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Israeli President Moshe Katzav invited Assad to visit Israel. According to Ha'aretz, an annoyed Syrian minister told CNN, "We need a serious response, this is not a serious response. A serious response is to say yes, we are interested in peace; we want to negotiate."