The news is full of reports about changes afoot in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As they make inroads into a move away from oil dependance we are hearing about ambitious tourist resorts and a relaxing of entertainment laws. However, almost weekly this coincides with another negative report about the strict regime.
We spoke to renown fixer and radio personality Essam Al Ghalib about the truth behind all this from a Saudi’s perspective and what it might mean for media looking to produce there in the future.
- International media reports a great change around the corner for KSA with the initiatives spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman – what is the reality of this?
Its very realistic. Great changes have already come over the past year, most notably the removal of the powers from the religious police – they have no more powers of arrest. They don’t have the right to approach anyone on the street or even ask for their ID, all they can do now is basically advise people. If they see a crime being committed they have the responsibility to contact the police who will deal with it.
Another change is the levying of an excise tax as Saudi moves away from dependency on oil which is part of the 2030 vision plan for the Kingdom. There’s also the establishment of an entertainment commission – for the first time we are starting to see music concerts held, theres the MISK arts festival recently held in Riyadh. It was particularly interesting as under the ultra conservatives you would not even have seen people making statues in public places as it would have been seen as idolatry but at this arts festival you saw painters come out, sculptors, all kinds of stuff. The venue was mixed gender and 28,000 people were there in attendance.
A couple of days ago it was announced by the crown prince that there would be a huge project to develop 50 islands in the Red Sea as a tourist destination with western standards. The international media reported the story and also mentioned the fact that bikinis would be allowed – the statement didn’t actually mention anything about bikinis but if you’re going to have a resort by international standards then I guess they are going to be allowed.
I feel that Saudi Arabia has left behind the days of ultra, ultra conservatism. We are moving forward to become a more global country, that’s for sure. The only concern is moving too fast so that you alienate the ultra conservatives. There has to be a balance between progress and doing it at the right pace, too fast and there’s a backlash, too slowly and in the eyes of the world there’s no progression at all. I don’t envy the responsibility on the shoulders of the crown prince.
MISK ARTS FESTIVAL 2017
- How do you think these changes will affect media wanting to come and produce in the kingdom?
Its a very exciting time for Saudi Arabia and there’s a lot of change. Everything that has been filmed here about how it was back in the day (particularly before two or three years ago) is ‘old stuff’. They need to come with an open mind, forget a lot of the old stories and ask a lot of new questions. Just like the rest of the world we want to move foreward and so that it’s positive development we might have to tackle the components of that one by one. The foreign media has to come here but they also have to understand that change isn’t going to happen overnight – but it is coming and in my work as a fixer on the ground I do see it. Its important not to focus on familiar issue like women driving or execution, all these will be addressed in time. We want to be seen in my opinion as something on a global level but at the same time remain the custodians of the two holy mosques. There’s a very delicate balance to be kept there and the stories that are told need to reflect both.
- Do you feel KSA is misrepresented in foreign media? Can you give any examples?
It is misrepresented in the foreign media and in some cases under represented. For example, there was a recent story about a young girl who was arrested after a video of her walking in a public place in a miniskirt went viral. However, hours after her arrest she was released without any charges – it was reported in Arabic media but not in the foreign press. It seemed they were just happy to leave it at that and the facts of the case weren’t even reported. She was in a fort outside Riyadh at a time when when there was nobody there to be offended, her husband was the one filming and she is a model so these shoots for her are normal. Somehow the clip was taken from her snapchat account so in fact she is a victim of crime but nobody went ahead and reported that aspect.
The video of this woman walking in a public location went viral prompting her arrest under indecency laws in Saudi.
There’s also the issue of fake news. Just a couple of days ago I got a message from someone asking me if a certain news story was true. Apparently 7 girls were due to be executed for being alone at a party which is completely untrue so I do wish people would look a little harder at the facts and use common sense.
Having said that the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information is making great efforts to progress. What I’ve seen from dealing with them just over the last few months is that it seems like we’re welcoming media coverage and we want to manage that properly. In the past the Info Ministry just said no to visas when we weren’t sure about the applicants or just didn’t respond to requests, now it seems like we’re more eager to encourage foreign media to come and work. People are going to see more and more opening up to journalists and lets just see where it goes. I’m very optimistic about a future where better communication and trust is established between the government and foreign media entities.
However, If somebody comes in with hidden cameras and gives them to people to go to the most run down parts of Jeddah, films the illegal immigrants that live there and then say “this is how Saudis live” then thats just shoddy reporting. You can thank Frontline PBS, ITN and ITV for their stupid documentary called Saudi Arabia Uncovered – sorry for the words but that was just a bunch of BS, it was inaccurate, biased and unethical.
- Up to this point has it been difficult to produce in KSA? Are there clear subjects on and off limits? And will this change with a gradual relaxing of restrictions?
The thing about Saudi Arabia is there’s a red line, but its very transparent. You don’t really get to see where it is, you just have to use caution. Its not like the old days where you’d get a phone call in the middle of the night or someone comes knocking at your door before you disappear for a couple of hours. With the advert of social media people are anyway getting their messages out there and its not something the government can control. Instead it’s created an environment where they want to change in order to see themselves accurately portrayed and they are extremely proactive in that. We are seeing new websites across the board for most of the ministries (in English also), new communications departments are being formed such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Information so definitely there is an interest to bring more news out of the country.
As to wether there are subjects on or off limits it really depends. You have to use common sense when you’re here but the days of the past where the Ministry of Information and their minders are trying to keep you from seeing certain things (and failing miserably) are gone. Now they want to address those things and encourage a back and forth dialogue but when the foreign media is constantly producing negative reporting it just doesn’t help anybody. They choose not to respond and by not responding it’s almost confirming so the government is now taking an active step towards making sure things are more transparent and issues that may have been crossing the red line in the past are now becoming normal. There’s no turning back from this now.
- Is there a resistance to change in KSA? How will an increased exposure to foreign cultures sit with the general population?
You have to realise Saudi Arabia has always been exposed to foreign cultures. Makkah is only 90km from Jeddah – it’s a very cosmopolitan and multicultural city and its influence has spread all across Arabia. You have people from all kinds of muslim countries, all kinds of places and the thing that unites them is Islam, they come here and many of them don’t leave so they do become a part of our community and culture. We have a population of about 32 million people 10 or 12 million of those are foreigners so there’s already a lot exposure to foreign cultures. The difference now is that there’s going to be greater understanding between cultures and thats what the media has to allow for here. Instead of seeing a 5 or 6 inch column in a newspaper about Saudi’s execution rate give us the same space talking about some of the multicultural exchanges and programs going on. I know its not as juicy but at the same time its not just executions all the time so a little fairness is called for.
- Why do you think its important to export Saudi culture by allowing more filming/reporting in the country?
To promote understanding of our culture and our country. It’s what we have to do and what the country realised about 10 or 15 years ago. We need to open up and thats what we’re doing.
- What are the under reported gems in the kingdom you would like to see publicised?
Any subject that has nothing to do with women driving, or cinemas, or the Wahhabi’s, or the Shia’s… be more creative, think outside the box. Reach out to the editors, the journalists, the Ministry of Information – reach out to me, I’ll tell you what the good stuff is.
They have this thing called Tasheer. The mountain tribesmen do an old traditional dance with muskets and gunpowder, they hold their rifles above their head, fire them into the ground – the first time I saw that I was totally blown away. Saudi Arabia is a huge place and there’s many different things to see.
- Do you feel that the domestic media industry has a long way to go? In their editorial style but also technically with crew and facilities?
Here in Saudi there’s boys with big toys. These toys include the very highest in quality equipment and facilities. There is a lack of good, available crews though and those that are here operate under the old way of thinking. They aren’t used to shooting in public and are worried about filming something without permission but through social media as well as the work of the police and government it’s become more the norm. Still today the police come and ask what you’re doing, where’s your permit… but they’ve also received a lot of training about the new laws in regard to filming. These laws are constantly changing.
But yes, we do have a long way to go. You just have to look at the quality of Saudi television English language Channel 2 and its terrible right now. We do have some good Arabic channels coming up but across the board improvement is needed, thankfully it is coming. Just a few days ago I wrote a story in Saudi News about how the Ministry of Information has plans to revamp the Broadcasting Corporation and bring it up to global standards, there’s also a lot of students returning after studying abroad. They’re learning about media, and broadcasting so we’re going to see all those US, Australian, Canadian graduates coming back and entering the industry.
In your work as a journalist and radio presenter you are known to question the status quo more than perhaps domestic mainstream media. Is this happening more in Saudi and do you think its important?
I might be viewed as the kind of person who questions the status quo but like I said before nobody really knows what the status quo is, it keeps changing. I believe that by pushing it a little bit (but not too far) you get to find out where the red line lies. If you push a little bit and don’t upset anybody you’ve just redefined where that is, then you push it a little bit more and you’ve set a new red line. But you’ve got to want to play.
However, for the most part I’ve had the benefit of having an editor over me who’s been there to advise when something is going to get me in trouble or not. Most of these guys I’ve scared the hell out of by pushing the red line but they’ve had me back again as a chief reporter. I push these limits because they need to be pushed, unless you do that you dont know where you are. There’s too much self censorship going on in media.
You can contact Essam through the site. The views or opinions presented in this article do not necessarily represent those of World Fixer and are reproduced ad verbatim from an interview with the subject.