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Saudi Arabia Through Western Eyes – Uncovered or Unfairly Maligned?

April 28, 2016


I come from a country whose wealth is derived from centuries of conquest, exploitation and slavery. A country whose capital city is full of mansions owned but rarely occupied by wealthy foreigners – safe havens for their fortunes of dubious provenance.

A country where generations of families whose adults have never worked live in run-down districts on state-funded benefits. Where gangs of taxi drivers prey on vulnerable girls and turn them into sex slaves. Where foreign workers with criminal records in their home countries murder and maim people for sexual gratification or financial gain.

Where stressed-out workers live on Prozac and the unemployed burgle homes to sustain their heroin habits. Where racism is endemic, and citizens rumble on about national values of respect and tolerance while abusing others on Twitter, avoiding tax and gorging themselves on cheap wine. Where a diminishing band of rich people are getting richer and ever-increasing millions of the poor are left to make do on the minimum wage.

Where people stumble on to the path of on-coming vehicles with smart phones in their faces. Where young girls collapse in the streets with their legs in the air when the bars close on a Saturday night. Where the elderly are abused and robbed by workers in “care homes”, or else live lives of aching loneliness in real homes they can’t keep clean, dying for the weekly visit from the meals-on-wheels team because that’s the only visitor they ever get.

Where politicians periodically send our armed forces to bomb, invade and destroy countries in the notional interest of “national security”. Whose security forces can monitor our mobile phones and listen to our conversations. Whose police and other enforcement bodies can enter our homes for any number of reasons, and whose local authorities can prosecute us for allowing our dogs to foul the streets or for putting the wrong kind of waste in our wheelie bins.

Is that a fair view of Great Britain?

Nine out of ten of my fellow-citizens would answer that it’s a ridiculously unbalanced picture of their homeland. Many would argue that the UK leads the world in its liberal values, compassion and freedom of speech. A great place to live. So great that twice as many foreigners choose to live there as Britons make their lives in other countries.

But it wouldn’t be difficult to put together a one-hour documentary, full of interviews and video clips, that would convince a substantial number of timorous foreigners never to set foot in the place, on the basis that it’s a pretty diabolical country to live in.

Now consider Saudi Arabia.

At a time when the Kingdom’s efforts to wean itself off its reliance on oil are putting the country in the spotlight, its human rights record is also under the gun from the western media. The narrative of the recent ITV/PBS co-production Saudi Arabia Uncovered was familiar to those who follow events in the Middle East, yet most likely shocking to those who don’t: sectarian unrest in the Eastern Province, the role of the religious police, the suppression of religious and political dissent, harsh punishments meted out to miscreants, evidence of covert funding of Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11.

A predictable reaction from the West dominated the social media: how can we support a regime that does such terrible things? Followed by equally predictable comments from the British government to the effect that Saudi Arabia is not a perfect state, yet acts as a valuable bulwark against terrorism, and from the Saudi government, which stated that the documentary was unfair and unbalanced.

And unbalanced it certainly was, as Sabria Jawhar asserts in Spreading lies about KSA, a recent article in the English-language Arab News. Sabria lived in the UK for some time while she was studying for her PhD, and she has always written sympathetically about her life in the West.

In the article, she robustly defends her home country, pointing out that:

The PBS Frontline documentary titled “Saudi Arabia Uncovered” gives Americans what they want the most: A deep dish of Saudi “oppression, cruelty, executions, abuse of women and assorted nastiness” that would disgust any human being with an ounce of emotion and empathy.

Much of it was nonsense, of course, and the video segments aired in hour-long documentary on March 29 are already online. But people will believe what they want to believe and me whining about it will not change the perception that Saudi Arabia’s citizens live in the “dark ages.”

She then argues that the documentary “loosely plays with the facts”, and presents a series of rebuttals of many of the points made in the programme.

I’m in no position to argue about the specifics, but I also take issue with some of the broad assertions.

The show told of an underground network of dissidents opposed to the Kingdom’s conservative elite, the religious establishment, the suppression of free speech and the social policies for which the country has become famous or, in the eyes of its critics, notorious.

What it didn’t point out was that there are many shades of opinion openly expressed in the print and social media every day. It’s true that there are red lines. Criticism of the ruling family and questioning of Islam, as Sabria points out, have always been no-go areas.

But Saudi journalists have been writing about social issues in their country for as long as I’ve been coming to Saudi Arabia. What they don’t do is confront the issues head on. They’ve learned to be more nuanced, more subtle. It’s also true that some have been judged to have over-stepped over the mark, and suffered accordingly, though certainly not on the scale of some neighbouring countries – Turkey for example.

Then there was the stark contrast drawn in the documentary between the palaces of the elite, which the under-cover dissident videoed in Riyadh, and the slums of Mecca. It would be easy to come to the conclusion that the Kingdom is populated mainly by the absurdly rich and the grindingly poor.

That’s not the case. Yes, if you go to south Jeddah you will find poverty and slums, and yes, there are plenty of palaces to be seen in Riyadh without the need to video them covertly. But just as there are many shades of opinion, there is as much variety in living standards as you would find in the UK, the US and other “first world” countries. A big section of the population falls into the middle-income bracket. There are small villas and apartments and larger ones. There are poor areas, wealthy ones and many in-between.

Another target in the film was education. The undercover reporter shot footage of a 14-year-old child parroting some pretty extreme stuff about Christians and Jews based on what he reads in school text books. Again, the deficiencies of the Saudi education system are not a state secret. There have been debates about improving primary and secondary education at least for the past couple of decades.

A more balanced portrait would have noted that for the past ten years the King Abdullah Scholarship Program has sent hundreds of thousands of young Saudis to study at western universities. Anyone who has studied at a British or American university will tell you that something of the culture of the host country – the way of life and the way of thinking – rubs off on everyone who studies at them. For the Saudis – and I’ve met many who have returned to their home country after studying abroad – this is no less the case than with any other nationality.

These plane-loads of returnees come home more open-minded and aware of the world than they were when they first set off. Not necessarily less conservative or inclined to challenge the social mores in their country, but certainly older and wiser, and more capable of thinking critically. They, I would argue, will be a powerful intellectual force in the years to come.

As for the text books themselves, the government has made efforts to remove the more poisonous messages, just as it is trying to clamp down on imams broadcasting similar messages in the mosques. And if you believe that the Saudi government can solve the problem simply by diktat, consider the difficulties the British prison service encounters in preventing their Muslim chaplains from sending what it considers to be extreme messages to the inmates in their care.

Concerning the criticism in the ITV/PBS documentary of the authoritarian nature of the Saudi state, let’s hear Sabria’s views on the subject:

I have long criticized conservatives and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) if their conduct warrants discussion. I have also criticized the policies of some the government ministries. Yet, I have never been silenced by the government for my opinions. It’s really a matter of how you express criticism that matters. We are not a democracy, but a monarchy and most Saudis will say this is their preferred form of government. We do not have free speech. Many of the criticisms leveled in the documentary are not due to government actions but are religious. Shariah is our preferred form of law and criticism of a Muslim country’s rulers is a very delicate issue in Islam for a variety of reasons that are not covered in the documentary.

The documentary states clearly that Saudis want a new form of government, but this is far from the truth. Stability is vital in this region and it’s the ruling monarchy that is giving us that stability. Most Saudis see no reason to change it.

She makes a fair point on the desire for stability. Ask any Iraqi or Syrian to compare their lives today with those they lived under Saddam and the Assads, and I suspect most would reply that they would gladly swap some personal freedoms for the ability to raise and feed their families in safety, free from bombs, shells and arbitrary justice.

Likewise, ask most Saudis whether they would prefer to live under their form of government as opposed to scratching around the bombed-out ruins of Ramadi or Palmyra or risking their lives on boats taking them to an uncertain future in Europe, and it’s not difficult to imagine what they would say.

There will be many people in the Kingdom who have seen the programme, or are aware of it, who will be pretty aggrieved by the portrayal of their country by the foreign media – not least the Government.

So – as my Arab friends like to say when faced with a difficult problem – what to do?

I suppose that depends on what you’re trying to achieve. The other day there was another piece about group of religious scholars debating how to improve the country’s image abroad. With all due respect to them, I doubt if they’ll come up with any answers to the problem of rebutting criticism, except possibly within the Muslim world.

If I were a PR executive with a general brief to find ways of making the country look better in the eyes of the world, I would probably come up with separate strategies aimed at the near critics and the far ones.

The near critics – the Arab and Muslim world, mostly share the language and many of the social mores of Saudi Arabia. Because I’m neither a Muslim nor an Arabic speaker, I wouldn’t presume to advise on getting those worlds on-side. What’s more I don’t think the Saudis need much help in this area.

But in dealing with the far critics – those in the West, and especially in countries like Britain, France and the United States that have an influence over Saudi Arabia’s actual and perceived security, I would first  recognise comprehension barriers. Arabic is the big one, of course. There are very few Arabic speakers in the West outside its ethnic Arab communities.  So the language barrier tends to reinforce the sense of the other – as a young Iraqi discovered recently when he was thrown off a flight in the US after he had spoken in Arabic with his uncle in Baghdad.

Then there are also the physical manifestations of difference – thobes and ghutras on the men, abayas, hijabs and niqabs on the women. Like it or not, the way the Saudis dress instantly differentiates them, even from other Arabs who don’t dress the same way.

Let’s start with the language barrier.

I will probably be howled at by my Saudi friends if I suggested that Saudi Arabia could learn from Israel in any sense. But for decades Israel has used articulate young spokesmen who explain government policy in perfect English. One of the most formidable of these is Mark Regev, the newly appointed ambassador to the UK. From very early in his career he has been one of Israel’s leading West-facing advocates. What he says may not be to the liking of his audiences in the West, but he says it with style and conviction. What’s more he comes over as “one of us” – the epitome of a young, educated westerner, which is not surprising given that he hails from Australia.

Saudi Arabia has a number of articulate ministers who make the country’s case very effectively – as well as one or two who fall short. But just as Prince Mohammed bin Salman represents a new generation of leaders, and is more than willing to speak at length to make the country’s case to the western media, perhaps every major ministry needs communicators who, like Regev, can speak comfortably in the western metaphor.

Finding such people should not be impossible. As I mentioned earlier there are large numbers of talented young Saudis graduating from western institutions through the Scholarship Program. Using younger people to speak for the government would be culturally dissonant in a society that associates age with authority, but this too is changing, again thanks to the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman.

Another aspect of communications at which Israel excels is fast reaction to events. This is also something that Saudi Arabia could learn. Initial denials of events and subsequent admissions don’t enhance credibility of the communicators. There are other aspects of Israel’s communications expertise that the Saudis probably shouldn’t emulate. The apparatus of Hasbara, through which it saturates the social media with trolls, fake accounts and robust expressions of the party line, is probably not a model to be copied. The world has become wise to these tactics, in which the Israelis are closely rivalled by the Russians.

Saudi Arabia can also enhance its image through less formal means. There are any number of YouTube videos that show the Saudi sense of fun – the Gangnam Style videos are good examples. Clips that need no translation appeal as easily to western audiences as to local ones. Then there are films. Wajda was a beautiful portrait of the country’s human face. Saudi Arabia should encourage its nascent film and entertainment industry, not only because it will have an audience in the Middle East and beyond, but because the output can contribute towards dissolving the sense of “the other” among outsiders. And if Iran can have a flourishing film industry, why not Saudi Arabia?

Outward appearances present another barrier.

Saudis are perfectly entitled to be proud of their national dress. The thobe, the ghutra and especially the flowing, gold-trimmed bisht convey a dignity and formality that instantly stands out from the suits that surround them at events typically covered by the western media. Yet that formality can be a double-edged sword. We in the West can relate more easily to a less formal style. Business leaders and even politicians are increasingly dressing down. Sixty years ago you would never see a British prime minister at a major event without a tie. Nowadays every G7 conference features photos of leaders in informal attire, even if some of them look as uncomfortable as they would be if they were wearing fancy dress.

Yet the Saudis, at least in public, remain mostly wedded to their formal robes. There are signs that this is changing. Mohammed bin Salman, for example was photographed talking to Bloomberg about the country’s need for economic transformation. He was not wearing a ghutra. The effect was immediately to make him more “like us” in western eyes. That can’t have been an accident. Likewise, the Foreign Minister, Adel Jubeir, frequently posed in suit and tie when he was the ambassador in Washington.

A less traditional approach doesn’t have to involve loss of dignity. And lately, apparently, dress-down is the norm among the young technocrats busy finalizing the National Transformation Program.

Should Saudi Arabia invest in an English-language channel with similar production and journalistic values as Al-Jazeera? I’m not sure. Russia, China and Iran – other countries that feel the need to explain themselves to a suspicious western audience – all have English-language channels, but RT, CCTV and PressTV serve more as an occasional curiosity than as mainstream viewing. Qatar’s Al-Jazeera is the only channel with close ties to a state entity that has come close to engaging with westerners outside the Middle East, and even it has pulled out of its US venture.

Whether the Saudis should make greater efforts to become more accessible to the West is not for me to judge. No doubt there are many patriotic Saudis who feel that their country has no further need to justify itself. Yet communications is one of the techniques of soft power, as other nations fully realise.

And finally, what of the ordinary Saudis? Are they, as PBS/ITV’s programme-makers suggest, cowed, downtrodden and oppressed? Obviously it’s ridiculous to generalise about a people of twenty million, just as it’s misleading to suggest that the followers of Donald Trump represent the sum of current attitudes in America, thank goodness.

But here’s what I know. The country has its share of intolerant, bigoted, feckless citizens, just as America and Britain have. But the vast majority of the people with whom I interact, not just in the office but in everyday life, are courteous, friendly and full of life. They have a great sense of humour. They are not afraid to comment on and mock their national shortcomings. They may have different social mores from those in the West, but there is no lack of idealism and sincere desire to improve their lives and those of others around them.

There are also many Saudi Arabias – different attitudes and customs within distinct communities and in different locations. The country is not a monolith. The Saudis are not a downtrodden people slaving to build the pyramids under the lash of the Pharaohs. Nor, for that matter, are the Kingdom’s expatriates a persecuted underclass, even if some undoubtedly suffer abuse – examples of which, by the way, often surface in the local media and attract loud condemnation.

The country is changing, even if the pace of change is not as fast and not in the direction as some western commentators would like. Saudis are overcoming the taboo on manual work, for example. Rasheed Abou Alsamh’s opinion piece in Arab News, Dignity in Manual Labour eloquently illustrates the point. As for the favourite subject of the Kingdom’s critics, women’s rights, Cynthia Gorney in National Geographic Magazine’s The Changing Face of Saudi Women offers a far more nuanced and positive view of progress and the obstacles that need to be overcome than many of the monochrome condemnations that appear periodically in the West.

And in recent weeks, there are signs that the government is acting to curb some of the excesses of the religious police. First there was an announcement that they are no longer allowed to arrest people, and should show a gentler touch when reminding people of the error of their ways. There was also a report that inflammatory sectarian opinions voiced by ultra-conservative clerics on the Ministry of Islamic Affairs website have been deleted.

Even if some cynics suggested that these were window-dressing measures in advance of President Obama’s visit to Riyadh last week, I see them as steps in the right direction.

So if anybody, after watching Saudi Arabia Uncovered, were to ask me how I can possibly visit the country, I would answer that if I avoided every nation with an aspect of its governance or society that I found less than perfect, I would have to avoid everywhere, with the possible exception of Antarctica.

Besides, despite the frustration of dealing with impenetrable bureaucracy, and despite the occasional outbreaks of startling cultural dissonance, I get immense pleasure from engaging with people who are well aware that their country is in need of improvement, even if they don’t all agree on the way forward. And another reason why I’ve been coming back and forth to the Kingdom over thirty-five years is the endless fascination of watching as the country progresses.

For what it’s worth, this is the picture of Saudi Arabia that I see. Not an apology for its shortcomings, but a view born out of empathy with its people rather than antipathy towards the systems they create.

  1. Well said Steve and beautifully written.

  2. Thanks Abdullah. A bit long for some people perhaps, but there are some things you can’t say in a thousand words!

  3. Hi Steve, I enjoyed reading this article because it demystifies some usual misconceptions about my country which are very common in western media. I wonder what message do such documentaries send to an uninformed audience and for what purpose? I know that we as a country and society are not perfect (in some cases even far from it!), but I’m sure a balanced view would show that in the past 10-15 years we’ve been making progress on several aspects. Plus, if the western media kept publicly middling with our local problems, some people in our society would say that our government are doing these changes just to satisfy the west which could do more harm than good!

    Like many Saudis, I’m optimistic about my country’s future especially after the Saudi Vision 2030 announcement by Prince Mohammed bin Salman and I hope this initiative will accelerate things for the better. Anyhow, sorry for the long comment and I’m happy for discovering this interesting blog!

    • Hi Muhammad, thanks for your comments, and also for flowing the blog! I think your country has made plenty of progress over the past 15 years, and I share your hope that the National Transformation Programme will move Saudi Arabia further forward. You make a good point about the reasons for the changes. Your country has to find its own way, and the impetus has to come from within if those changes are to have a lasting effect. On the other hand, you live in a region whose peace and security is in the interest of the wider world, and especially the West, whose governments and societies often feel threatened by many of the political developments. So it’s hardly surprising that the western media should take a long-standing interest in the Kingdom, which is at the centre of the Arab world. As I said in the post, better communications could resolve some of the misconceptions. Also, as the country opens up more widely to tourism, more people will come to see the positive aspects that the foreign media doesn’t focus on. I wish only the best for the Saudi people who have made me so welcome over the past three decades. Steve

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