BBC Arabic radio goes off air after 85 years

Station closes as part of cuts at broadcaster's World Service

The BBC is making cuts to its World Service amid a funding squeeze. Getty
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The BBC's Arabic radio service went off air on Friday after 85 years of broadcasting.

It is being axed as part of cuts at the BBC's World Service, although some Arabic audio content will be published online.

Former listeners and journalists described it as a sad moment as the corporation's first foreign language service shut down.

The station launched on January 3, 1938, with presenter Ahmad Kamal Sourour Effendi recruited from Egypt. It was known for opening its news bulletins with the words: “This is London.”

Its final broadcast ended shortly before 1pm London time on Friday, with presenter Mahmoud Almossallami signing off with what called the station's “prized slogan” — “This is London.”

"Before the hard moment comes where we say our goodbyes, a moment that is tough for all of us, let's celebrate what BBC radio gave back to us and celebrate those who gave their all to this service, those who have gone and those who are with us, and wish them the best for the remainder of their journey," he said.

Listeners who grew up with the station told The National of their memories.

“Listening to this radio was part of most of my life along with my father, my grandfather and my uncles,” said Saeed Nouri, an education expert and administrative adviser at Ajman Private School, who has been working in education in the UAE since 1969.

“If they wanted to make sure of some news, they would say 'look for it on This is London', as they used to call it.

“At the time when the radios were the size of a huge car battery, I remember how old men gathered around it to listen to the show. As I look back at that time, it’s a shame we won’t be hearing a phrase we grew up to.

“It's sad how beautiful things that have shaped huge part of our lives leave us.”

Hala Omar, a retired vice principal living in the UAE, said her father Abdel Rahman Omar, a bank manager, was an avid listener of the station.

“My father would not move anywhere about the house without his portable radio,” she said.

“I was 12 at the time the 1973 war broke out in the Middle East. My father was glued to the radio at the time and it was unfathomable for my siblings and I to make any noise or utter a word during those hourly briefings.”

Abdulla Ali Jaber, 68, who is from Bahrain, recalled listening to BBC Arabic in his father's car while he was dropped off at school.

“I can still remember the opening line 'This is London' at the start of the news bulletin, and I used to mimic that voice as a child acting all serious and formal, like I imagined how a proper Arabic orator would sound like but a sort of Elizabethan English air to it.”

The BBC said the end of Arabic programming “closed an iconic chapter”.

BBC Persian, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Indonesian, Tamil and Urdu radio stations are also closing down as part of the World Service shake-up, resulting in the loss of 382 jobs.

Announcing the cuts last autumn, the BBC said it would “invest in building audio and other digital capability” to replace the Arabic radio offering.

It said the cuts were caused by a switch to online news consumption and the difficult economic picture forcing £28.5 million ($35.3 million) of savings.

“Today is a tragic day for Arab media,” correspondent Emir Nader, who worked with BBC Arabic, said on Friday.

Another journalist, Sally Nabil, said it was “far beyond sad and painful” to see the station close and “incredibly difficult to describe how we feel”.

The BBC's international services are regarded as a tool of British soft power, promoting the UK's image and values around the world.

The birth of the Arabic station in 1938 was seen as a counterweight to broadcasts by fascist Italy. The same year, the BBC started broadcasting in German, Italian and French.

Updated: January 27, 2023, 5:14 PM