While sub disappearance transfixes some, many say their focus is on other calamities

The search for a submersible that disappeared while taking wealthy tourists to see the wreck of the Titanic has gripped many with its grim cinematic element

Munir Ahmed,Cara Rubinsky
Wednesday 21 June 2023 17:54 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The search for a submersible that disappeared while taking wealthy tourists to see the wreck of the Titanic has gripped many with its grim cinematic elements — a ticking clock, passengers running out of oxygen, and of course, the iconic ocean liner itself, which still captivates the public imagination more than a century after it sank.

In Pakistan, where two of the passengers were from, people flocked to social media with prayers and newspapers covered it heavily. But the outpouring fell far short of the shock and grief over a boat carrying hundreds of migrants that sank recently off the coast of Greece — many of them also from the South Asian country.

That story also struck a chord in other countries that the migrants left, many in the Middle East.

In other parts of the world, the disappearance of the sub has led newscasts and prompted extensive discussion on social media. In the U.S., it's at the top of online news sites and discussed on morning shows. In the U.K., the story was prominently featured on front pages Wednesday, and even King Charles III was being kept up to date on the situation since one of those onboard was a longtime supporter of two charities he founded.

The tale has echoes of other rescue attempts that have transfixed the public: 12 young Thai soccer players and their coach, caught out by rising waters in a cave they were exploring. Thirty-three Chilean miners, trapped underground for 69 days. Twenty-three Russian sailors confined in a compartment after explosions on their submarine, the Kursk. The soccer players and miners were rescued in time; the sailors were not.

But it also differed in a key way that may explain why it has not elicited quite the same universal attention — these are wealthy adventurers who chose to take a dangerous journey, not children playing or people doing their jobs.

Mohammad Afzal, a villager on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, said he was sad for businessman Shahzada Dawood, who was on board with his son Suleman, but he added: “I do not know why wealthy people do such things. Did they spend a lot of money just to see the wreckage of the Titanic?”

The wealth of the sub passengers also contrasted with the desperation that pushed hundreds of migrants to leave their homes and try to reach Italy by boat last week. About 100 were rescued, but more than 500 remain missing, including an unknown number of Pakistanis, after one of the worst migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea.

While Afzal said he was praying for the safe return of the Dawoods, he also mourned for the families of the migrants whose parents likely took out loans and sold jewelry, buffaloes, and cows to send their sons to Europe so that they can find better jobs.

“God save them, and our prayers are for them too,” he said, as he looked toward the sky.

While the story played prominently in Pakistani media, it has not resonated in the same way as the shipwreck.

In the streets, conversations about the fate of the migrants are frequently overheard, with people praying for those who were on board and cursing the smugglers who took thousands of dollars from each of them. The Pakistani government, meanwhile, has regularly issued statements assuring help for the families of the victims, but it has not made any statement about the submersible.

In many Middle Eastern countries, there's even less interest in the fate of those on the sub. Few media outlets across the Arab Gulf countries and Iran led with news of the missing submersible on Wednesday and most picked up foreign media reports.

The pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera led its afternoon broadcast with the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence while its main competitor, Al-Arabiya, led with the fighting in Sudan.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, none of the 10 Palestinians interviewed by The Associated Press had even heard of the vanished submersible, though three of them thought at first they were being asked about the migrant ship.

Munir Sayej, a jeweler, said the lack of attention reflected the depth problems closer to home.

“That’s a good question to ask people relaxing on the beach in Italy, but not here,” he said. “Five people might die? Well, five people died here in Jenin, and people are being killed all the time here. Everyone here is thinking about their own lives, their own problems, their own struggles.”

Nadine Kheshen, a Lebanese human rights lawyer and researcher, put it starkly: The scale of attention and resources devoted to the submersible search in comparison to what was expended for the Greek boat tragedy “sends a message … that our lives are cheap comparatively.”

In Greece, the story of the migrant ship sinking, who might have been to blame and the ongoing search-and rescue-operation dominated news coverage for days.

By Wednesday, when the hope of locating further survivors had diminished significantly, the developments in the search for the missing submersible began to replace it at the top of news bulletins.

On that story, people were still waiting to learn if any hope remained.


Rubinsky reported from London. Associated Press Writers Danica Kirka in London, Samy Magdy in Cairo, Elena Becatoros in Athens and Abby Sewell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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