Big kingdom, small window Adventures with the Ministry of Informationin Saudi Arabia (Behind the News, 17/12/2012)

During the eight years I organized overseas trips for US news editors at the International Reporting Project, I had a rule of thumb that served me well—if a country has a Ministry of Information, it means trouble. So when, after a two-year effort, the Saudi Royal Court finally granted IRP’s request to bring 12 editors to the Kingdom on a fact-finding/study tour, and assigned the visit to the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI), I was prepared for headwinds. I didn’t realize it would be a nor’easter.

Until very recently, Saudi Arabia was almost a closed shop as far as the US media was concerned. Apart from seismic events, like Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack that killed 19 US servicemen, Saudi officials saw little benefit in letting nosy American journalists wander around the country. With the exception of one resident reporter each for The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, and the occasional lone reporter, it has been difficult for US journalists to get visas.

Several years ago, however, some senior Saudi officials realized the Kingdom was doing itself a disservice by limiting US media access. The restrictions perpetuated an image of Saudi Arabia as a nation of religious extremists, where women sit at home and everyone is a millionaire—a caricature that does not convey the complex reality and the dynamic forces at work in Saudi society today. Cautiously, the Saudi government made greater efforts to open up. Permission for the IRP delegation’s spring 2012 visit was part of that push.

Still…. Similarities between arrangements for a 2010 China trip I organized and the 2012 Saudi visit were striking. Like China, Saudi Arabia requires visiting groups to have a “host” institution that sponsors the visit and organizes meetings. As in China, no Saudi institution will meet with a foreign group unless the host institution writes an official letter. The first question any Chinese or Saudi institution contacted about a potential meeting will ask is, “Who is your host?” Finally, as in China, the host institution sends a minder along, to attend all official meetings.

My first inkling that things might not go well was when I told various people in Washington with knowledge of Saudi Arabia that IRP’s host was the Ministry of Culture and Information. Most responded by burying their faces in their hands and shaking their heads. MOCI is known as a bastion of hostility to the Western press.

As in many countries, the information ministry’s main purpose is to monitor and control the press. In Saudi Arabia, no editor-in-chief can be hired without Ministry approval. MOCI also issues informal guidance on how and what stories to cover through its close relationship with the government-owned Saudi Press Agency. Other Saudi news organizations usually follow SPA’s cues. In addition, MOCI implements Internet restrictions and bans books.

During my February advance trip, I met several times with the men of MOCI. Women are said to work at the Ministry, but I never saw one. Like most Saudi government workplaces, gender segregation is strictly enforced at MOCI’s well-guarded Riyadh campus.

A mid-level official, whom I shall call Mr. K., explained the procedures required for us to request meetings with institutions—like the powerful state oil company Saudi Aramco, a university, the Ministry of the Interior, and the royal family. His desk was piled high with letters containing requests from foreign journalists for meetings and interviews. The Ministry, he explained, must endorse a foreign journalist’s each and every meeting at practically all Saudi institutions.

For the delegation’s visit I also engaged, independent of the Ministry, two lovely and competent young Saudi women—Deema al-Mashabi in Riyadh (who now works for Bloomberg), and Laura Bashraheel, a reporter who covers social issues for the Jeddah-based Saudi Gazette—to help with various aspects of the trip.

Saudi Arabia’s talent pool of young people is deep. Tens of thousands of Saudis have degrees from US universities. Many have a sophisticated knowledge of Western media.

Not one of these works at MOCI, as far as I could tell. The Ministry seemed to be a jobs program for those with wasta, an Arabic term for “connections.” Unemployment among under 30’s in Saudi Arabia is an estimated 27 percent, an odd predicament in a country where 8.6 million foreign workers—around 30 percent of the population—fill more than 90 percent of private sector jobs. Many Saudis still expect the government to provide them with jobs, resulting in bloated ministries full of employees wishing they were elsewhere. Every young person I met at MOCI wanted to be doing something else.

Usually, three weeks prior to departure, an IRP trip schedule is mostly complete. For the Saudi visit, though, we still had no official appointments by that point. Worried, we called Mr. K., who responded, “Why the rush?”

Trouble was brewing on all fronts. Any mixed gender meeting in Saudi Arabia is fraught with difficulty. A routine request to meet with a group of male and female university students, something IRP did in every country, stalled. MOCI refused to sanction it (I later learned they could have given the go-ahead, but that would have meant extra paperwork.)

I moved to Plan B—work around the Ministry. I enlisted the help of various sympathetic Saudi officials. I contacted the institutions we wished to visit directly. No one would budge without the official MOCI letter. I asked one Saudi official what would happen if the Ministry failed to deliver. “Then,” he replied, “you’re screwed.”

Of particular concern was our visit to Saudi Aramco, such a fixture of foreign delegation visits I had assumed it would be a routine matter. But the all-important MOCI letter to the Ministry of Petroleum, which must approve all Saudi Aramco meetings, went missing. We had to run a backdoor play to get the visit.

Not all Saudi ministries function like MOCI. Saudi Arabia’s powerful Ministry of the Interior—in charge of internal security and quashing local dissent—organized a very interesting anti-terrorism briefing and visit to what he called a jihadist rehabilitation center for us. Their spokesman’s office, run by the affable Major-General Engineer Mansour al-Turki, a University of Washington graduate, is efficient and professional. And Saudi Aramco has a sophisticated PR department. Where it matters, the Saudis can deliver.

The delegation arrived in early May. To sidestep the university gender problem we asked to meet medical students at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. Only at Saudi medical schools and the isolated King Abdullah University for Science and Technology do men and women take classes together.

One sensitive meeting we had requested was with the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), often called the muttawa or muttawein, but known to most Saudis simply as al-hai’a, “The Commission.” The King had recently appointed a new “reformist” director in an attempt to curb its excesses. We were eager to hear his views.

Apparently our request provoked a battle royale. We were a foreign group and worse, mixed gender. Mr. A, a suave TV political commentator assigned by MOCI to assist us, suggested that the women in the group exclude themselves from the meeting. The Commission director would talk to men, but not women. I declined the offer.

In Jeddah, our next stop, the task of organizing the student roundtable seemed to be beyond MOCI’s organizational capacity. After much phone calling, a little more than an hour before the event was to start, we got the green light. We entered a conference room at the medical school. The editors set up their cameras and recording equipment.

But there were no students.

University officials responded to this state of affairs by grabbing students as they got off the elevator and delivering them to us. Three poor souls, shoved into the room via this method, looked at us in terror. Over the next half hour, more students entered, until there were 15 students of both genders. The men sat themselves on the left, the women on the right.

While most of the male students wore scrubs, the female students’ attire was interesting. By law, all women in the Kingdom, including foreigners, must wear abayas—long-sleeved robes (usually black) that completely cover their bodies—in public places. Only female medical students and other female medical workers may wear white, hip-length lab coats. Most of the women had jeans and sneakers on underneath. Several wore the niqab, or face veil, widely used in Saudi Arabia. But I was surprised that so many women chose to show their faces.

Here is the punch line: the students were terrific, particularly the women. Bright and assertive, eager to engage, they were helping the medical school faculty revise and modernize the curriculum. Several women planned on becoming neurosurgeons, and most intended to continue working after marriage.

Afterwards, our difficulties with appointments continued. Throughout our visit, MOCI and other Saudi officials utilized a variety of ploys to avoid giving offense by overtly turning down a request. The following are some common Saudi avoidance strategies:

Wait Out the Clock. The institution you are dealing with doesn’t say no, but it doesn’t say yes. It simply waits until a deadline has passed or a trip has ended, and the problem takes care of itself.

Yes, but…. The party you wish to meet agrees, but sets conditions that make the meeting impossible. Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, now the Crown Prince, agreed to meet our delegation, but in Jeddah, the day we were scheduled to fly from Riyadh back to the US.

Bait and Switch. You are assured you are getting the event you asked for. When you show up, it bears no resemblance to what you have been promised. With Prince Salman unavailable in Jeddah, MOCI proposed his son, Sultan bin Salman, the Saudi astronaut turned tourism minister, and several of his royal peers. Fifteen minutes prior to the event, Mr. A. assured us the princes would be there. When we arrived at the restaurant where the meeting was to take place, however, no royals were present. A bunch of puzzled Saudi journalists had been hastily summoned for dinner. Later we learned Prince Sultan was in Mexico at the time, and the other princes weren’t in Riyadh that day.

Honestly, I shouldn’t lay all blame at MOCI’s door. For many Saudis in government and business, speaking to Western journalists is like getting a root canal. They are loath to talk on-the-record for good reason—there can be harsh penalties for speaking out.

This media shyness hasn’t prevented Saudis from dominating the Arab world’s media. Saudis own the largest Arab media organizations, over 100 satellite television channels, and the largest and most influential pan-Arab newspapers, al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat. Interestingly, the vast majority of these news organizations, many controlled by members of the Saudi royal family, are headquartered outside of Saudi Arabia, to avoid Saudi government censorship.

The Kingdom, though, may be on the cusp of great change. Two-thirds of its population is under 29, and the young seem less fearful than their parents of taking risks. Saudi Arabia’s alternative, unofficial media is Internet based, and has some of the most interesting commentary in Saudi Arabia today.

Independent male and female bloggers and comedians are gaining the audience that Saudi Arabia’s stodgy official press is losing. To cite just two examples: Ahmed al-Omran, a 27 year-old Columbia Journalism School graduate, who has worked for NPR, comments on political and social issues in Saudi Arabia at his blog Fahad al-Butairi, a young geophysicist with a degree from the University of Texas at Austin, is Saudi Arabia’s Jon Stewart. His Internet comedy show La Yekthar (“put a lid on it”), thoughtfully captioned in English, has received over 50 million page views. Episode 14 includes a series of hilarious “man in the street” interviews in New York’s Time Square that poke fun at official Saudi attitudes about women, Jews, and other subjects.

As with everything in the Kingdom, though, change will probably take time. The term “step-by-step” is a national mantra. If you are an American journalist heading to Saudi Arabia, good luck.

If you stick with it, though, you’ll meet many extraordinary people, and witness a distinctive culture struggling to come to terms with the modern world.

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