Newspapers and Technology December 2000

Al Watan: An unusual Saudi Arabian project

Thomas Schonbucher is a consultant in the newspaper and commercial printing industries.

While addressing the Cairo Summit, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat pledged to all Arabs and Muslims to continue the struggle “until we achieve victory.” Concurrently, the investigation around the bombing of the U.S. destroyer U.S.S. Cole at Aden harbor in Yemen is continuing; while two misguided youth hijack a London-bound Saudi Arabian airliner from Jeddah to Baghdad.

It takes a few months in Saudi Arabia to understand that a new newspaper in the midst of Middle East flashpoints adds considerable new information, while at the same time bringing a spectrum of opinions in what I would consider a newspaper drought land.

I am talking about the Al Watan, published in Abha, Saudi Arabia, by Assir Est. Press & Publishing, which commenced operation with its first issue Sept. 1.


The Region

Abha, Assir, is known as the Switzerland of Saudi Arabia by its people. It is far from the vast sandy deserts, located 7,217 feet (2,200 meters) above the Red Sea. The landscape is rocky and bare, similar to the desert, and only on the sheer cliffs descending towards the Red Sea do some green scrubs appear. Rare but heavy rain showers, lasting only for moments, make way once more to another hot and sunny day. There are more than 15 languages spoken during any business day activity. Furthermore, an estimated 27 nationalities are working together.


History of Al Watan

The newspaper, Al Watan, has never been in the publishing business before. This alone makes the project very unusual. Normally I provide expertise to projects that already display a wealth of experience. Their problem might be an outdated, but functional, newspaper facility. Usually I deal with experienced people from top management to the operators on the press. Here in Abha, everything is new and needs to be explained, argued, presented and, finally, purchased. A challenge, where one either grows quickly accustomed, or goes under even quicker.

A MAN Roland AuroPort, part of the Aurosys material handling system, delivers rolls of newsprint from the unwrapping station to the reelstands.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Schonbucher


Ownership of the newspaper

The newspaper’s father is Prince H.R.H. Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, the Governor of Assir, and should you ever have the privilege of meeting him, you would feel his passion and love for this project. He is also an outstanding poet, passionate and powerful in his words.

He has poured his own personal wealth into this project, which has run considerably over budget with the buildings in both Abha and Riyadh. Consequently, the project was on hold for several months, thus creating difficulties at the time when retuning and commissioning all equipment installations with each other took place.

The two senior managers for the Abha project are Sheik Abdullah Saeed Abu Melha and Mamdouh A. Ba-Owaidan, both of outstanding capabilities.


Newspaper culture in Saudi Arabia

A newspaper license has not been issued in Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years. Being a true monarchy, the license to print was issued depending on certain conditions, the main one being that the newspaper had to be published in a regional area. Allowances have been made to print concurrently in Riyadh.

Printing is power, but, at the same time, presenting new opinions exposes one to criticism. It was not surprising that religiously conservative circles criticized the paper for showing several well-known Saudi Arabian and international women achievers’ portraits. Fashion pictures are always manipulated to ensure the cultural integrity of not showing any unnecessary bare flesh, such as the arms and neck.

Saudi Arabians are also very proud of traditional nature. Negotiations often reflect old business practices whereby trusting a friend is valued more than a good technical argument. Unfortunately, this left many doors open for bad consultant advice. Saudi time is relative, and definitely not running to a Swiss clock. It took several interventions from the chairman of the board to get editorial to observe deadlines.


Circulation and distribution

The paper is a true national paper, with international publishing in London and New York, Amman, Jordan, and Cairo, Egypt. It is distributed nightly from Abha to Yemen. Around midnight, two regular transport flights carry the Al Watan to the distribution centers in Riyadh and Jeddah. From there, the paper will be dispatched to every corner of the country. The current print order is around 120,000 copies; however, the circulation potential of this relatively low newspaper volume is unlimited.


The press start-up

Imagine the first day, when never before a newspaper was printed in this facility, and the Prince and 150 selected guests arrive to watch the press starting up. There is not much more production pressure one can be exposed to. But it worked.

Not only did we start up with 36 broadsheet pages with full color, eight of them heatset dried, but we had an additional 16-page broadsheet section pre-run to be mechanically inserted. The icing on top of this birthday cake was that 10,000 copies needed to be individually plastic wrapped by the Sitma machine. Hiccups or failing was not an option. We needed to succeed from the beginning, and continue printing 120,000 copies every night.

The Al Watan uses a Ferag ETR-C to handle its on-line inserting. The system is fed by two pre-collection stations, allowing two different items to be collated and inserted at once.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Schonbucher


Unusual business partners

This project needed some unusual flexible, tolerant, intuitive and agile business partners. MAN Plamag, a wholly owned subsidiary of MAN Roland, supplied the CromoMAN 50 press, which has nine printing units, 12 reelstands and two heatset dryers. Ferag supplied the mailroom, and Autologic Information International supplied the computer-to-plate system.



Consumables are mainly imported from overseas. It was disappointing to see that some familiar consumable manufacturers clearly have three quality standards — top quality, probably for the U.S. market; second quality for NATO allies and others; and lastly, Saudi Arabian quality.

The long-term aim is to develop the Saudi Arabian market, to make business partners out of importers, to get as many consumables as reasonably possible manufactured locally and for the rest, find partners who understand that exporting inferior material has no future.


Leading-edge technology is not just for technically developed organizations or highly industrialized countries. The Al Watan project is a testimony that the latest technology may well be applied in all parts of the world. The formula is simple: (training, spare parts, endurance, some skills and expertise, enthusiasm) + (of course, a good project manager with a flair for the unusual) + (a genuine commitment by the supply partners) = success.

The shaftless CromoMAN50, with all its bells and whistles, the Autologic APS 3850 Wide CTP, a VCP2002 optical punch bender from Nela, the MAN Roland Aurosys system and the Ferag mailroom equipment have given this company the flexibility they need for a bright and successful future.

When I leave here in December, having spent five months living and breathing a project of an unusual nature, I will close the door behind me quietly because I know that they all have learned to stand on their own feet.


 EDITORIAL — RapidNews, Sun Cluster, QuarkXPress, Adobe Photoshop.

PREPRESS — Two Autologic APS 3850 Wide CTP with a Nela VCP2002 optical punch bender.

PRESS — MAN Plamag CromoMAN 50 with nine 8-couple tower printing units, 12 core-driven reelstands, two Megtec dryers, two jaw folders with quarterfold. Web width of 26.22 inches (660mm) to 37.83 inches (961mm) and cut-off of 22.75 inches (578mm). Technotrans inking system with three independent ink supply systems.

MAILROOM — Ferag with two TTR lines, two inserting drums (ETR), two inserting feeders, three Quattro Pack stackers each with film wrapping and strapping, three dispatch docks, Sitma film wrapping line with stacker and strapper.


Thomas Schonbucher is a consultant in the newspaper and commercial printing industries. If you have any questions or comments about this article or if you wish to contact him directly, write to

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