Considered as the birthplace and spiritual home of Islam, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia carries a noble history upon it’s sands. But it’s place in the modern global consciousness is revered and controversial in equal measures.
From Madain Saleh to the forthcoming ‘Kingdom Tower’, the country is a staggering clash between the old and the new with a vast wealth of attractions to discover and spiritual symbolism underpinning everything that happens. However, it is also one of the most insular, and difficult places to visit in the world.
More often than not we find that foreign media coverage focusses on the negative aspects of life under the current regime, broadly sweeping aside the many positive stories that could take their place. Not to make light of alleged human rights abuses and gender inequality but one has to wonder if this regions unwillingness to discuss their issues openly has meant this unfortunate public image is one of it’s own making. World Fixer talks to esteemed fixer and media liaison, Essam Al-Ghalib about how silence is the most condemning statement of all and how the tide may soon be turning for freedom of expression on the peninsular.
Essam has worked in his native Saudi as an English language journalist for twelve years, and a fixer/TV producer for eight. Currently he holds a position at the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation part time whilst facilitating foreign clients on the side. His references list reads like a who’s who of international broadcasting and a short time after signing up to World Fixer we had nine, top tier testimonies extolling his virtues as the most capable, dynamic fixer in the country – more than anybody else on the site at that time. His website claims, ‘Where other local fixers may tell you no, it can’t be done, I tell you, let’s try’ and it is perhaps this willingness to go the extra mile that has put him ahead of the game – but it isn’t without it’s risks:
“When I see my work on TV, that millions are seeing and I don’t get a knock on the door (from the police)… I know it’s a job well done”.
Working as a fixer in Saudi Arabia isn’t illegal, although there are those within the Ministry of Culture & Information who claim it is, and have sought to bear down on those who facilitate foreign media. The few recognised local fixers there are in the country have been recently contacted, questioned and subsequently warned off the practice.
“The Ministry of Information can only do so much. Maybe what they are doing now is illegal… they could be trying to twist my arm as there is no official line on fixers. The people I deal with at the Ministry of Interior are fantastic, they understand what I’m trying to do but I think the MOI are worried I’m just doing their job better than them”
So where is the line in this most conservative, and protective country? If you’re planning a project you have to be prepared for a lengthy and uncertain process. Visa applications can take up to a year to secure and once there you will be chaperoned by a government ‘minder’. For breaking news stories, bureaus have to rely on a small pool of local freelancers to work remotely such as Essam. The presence of these minders is extremely limiting as part of their job is to lead you away from the stories they don’t want told but many fixers will try.
“I’ve had some interesting experiences, including an arrest by the terrorism and political branch of the Interior Ministry’s secret police. This happened after ditching government minders with a Greek film crew I was working for. They wanted to film the house where Osama Bin Laden’s mother lived, and where he grew up. There was no way they were going to let me do that but we went anyway after they’d gone home for the day.
At 7pm the next evening I was already in my office at Arab News and got a call from a very serious voice who summoned me downstairs. I was escorted to the Secret Police Station and asked ALOT of questions. I apologised and they made me sign something to say I’d never ditch my minders again”
So the line, (if it can be so broadly defined) lies in protecting the image of the Kingdom and fixers who are asked to cross it must consider the value of the story before getting involved.
“A lot of stories need to be told to help bring about social change – we’re a reactive society, not a proactive one. Some stories should not be done though as they will hurt people. For example, if I as a fixer am going to take a film crew to cover the gay community in Saudi they could suffer a huge backlash so I will not do it. There’s so much to consider here to do things safely… and also to keep my butt out of jail.
If I take a film crew with a hidden camera to film a public execution then I’m definitely in trouble but if I show a private company abusing workers it’s not a state problem so ok.”
The problem is that the desirable ’message’ the government wants promoted is not exactly clear. It is impossible to find a list of Do’s and Don’t and this is where the Ministry of Culture and Information is designed to step in. If a fixer circumvents this system the Information Ministry immediately lose control and the normal approach of staying silent when confronted with controversy ceases to have the same results.
“Not having fixers means everything that comes out of the country from foreign media is the ‘official’ version of the truth. Having a veil of secrecy is not a way to get things done as people are smart and these days they also have social media. By not saying anything, they are really saying a lot.”
Take the recent case of an internet blogger, Raif Badawi, subjected to 1000 lashes for criticising clerics in the country. The international response was one of horror as people imagined the violent, bloody scene that it would surely be. However, the reality is far from this and Essam was invited to talk to BBC to explain exactly what it entails.
“Raif’s wife in Canada went public saying that she was not sure he could withstand 1000 lashes. People were imagining all that flesh and blood but it’s not actually like that. It’s more of a retaining than a whipping, they cannot raise their arm to strike him – it’s definitely not 12 Years A Slave! So much information out there is inaccurate and I wish the government would stand up and say something. I take the time to explain why we do things here the way that we do and it means people understand things better. I try to take the time to explain where the minders and the Ministry don’t.”
Saudi Arabia is not unique in it’s approach to public relations though, but things are definitely changing. These days much of the content leaving these so called ‘secretive states’ is coming from independent sources and whilst this represents an opportunity for the truth to get out it is hard to verify their authenticity. Perhaps the role of the fixer has never been so important as it is now as a mediator of this ‘loose information’ or someone who can conduct the necessary checks. There will never be enough Ministry staff to control the flow of stories, true or elaborated but for the international media there is real value in using people on the ground for purposes of authentication.
For professional journalists such as Essam the rise of social media has it’s pro’s and con’s. It is positive that people within the country can see what’s going on and discuss different opinions to it but on the other hand there is real potential for these stories to create a toxic image of the country.
“I am Saudi and I love my country, I don’t want to ruin the reputation and I’m very careful – if I see a foreign crew wanting to do a hatchet job on Saudi I pull out. But in many cases the government can’t control our voice – that voice comes through social media now. We are opening up on every level because of it and it’s hard to keep secrets in. Kids can see everything online and hear it debated by other cultures which means they question themselves. Saudi Arabia is also sending 150,000 youngsters abroad every year to study in foreign universities – they come back with new perceptions, new ideas.
Year by year the country is opening up and getting away from being completely secretive as it used to be. I, myself, can attest that major change has occurred over the past 10 years in how receptive the Ministry of Culture and Information has become to fulfilling requests from foreign media. Requests that would be denied or ignored five years ago, are now processed and approved happily. Things are becoming more and more transparent, but still, a lot remains to be done.”
It may take some time yet for complete change to come and the transition towards complete freedom of speech is unlikely to be smooth. However, while there are those like Essam with a desire to see a more open society this movement can only gather momentum. He sees the job of facilitating foreign journalists as an important one which needs to be done and for him it’s a powerful motivator.
“In the digital age things get out anyway. I’ve told the Ministry what I do and if they try to stop me I’ll have to go underground. There’s a lot of important news that has to come out of here, human stories, those advocating for change – like any country there’s as much good as bad. We have a new King, a new Minister of Culture and Information, maybe now they’ll open up a bit. When foreign crews come they visit for maybe 24 hours, or two days but I want to encourage people to come on a single entry visa and stay for a couple of weeks – really see what they can do and the other stories around”
Essam Al-Ghalib can be contacted via World Fixer or through his website: http://essamalghalib.wix.com/essam-wix