Arab and international journalists have always targeted Saudi Arabia – at times, they might have been right in doing so, but some have ulterior motives in their coverage. When it comes to dealing with the media, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz has presented himself as one of the most skilled and experienced political leaders for decades.
He dealt with the first media campaign waged against Saudi Arabia during the dispute with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. He played a significant role in communicating with Egyptian media officials at the time, namely Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the then editor of Al-Ahram newspaper. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he handled political Arab issues in the international media and he supported the idea of establishing Saudi media institutions overseas, to become involved in the ongoing regional political rivalries.
Saudi Arabia is still one of the most important Arab countries to the international media. Media activities are indispensable and crucial in conflict. Saudi Arabia has pushed its influence through diplomacy, economic support and media campaigns, while other countries like Iran, Syria, and Saddam's Iraq resorted to security and military tools to extend their influence. For instance, the Syrian regime has consistently intimidated and pursued journalists, and did not hesitate to kill them. Syria has a proven record in this field; from the killing of Salim al-Lawzi owner of the Lebanese “Hawadeth” media institution in the 1980s, to the assassination of Gebran Tueni, Editor-in-Chief of the Lebanese “An-Nahar” newspaper, all because the publication dared to call for an end to Syria’s military presence in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia is used to being at the center of media storms because of the nature of its conservative regime and society. The majority of what is being said and written is either fabricated or exaggerated, such as for example the recent rumors about Saudi Arabia being on the verge of bankruptcy because of falling oil prices. In a meeting with senior Saudi media delegates a few days ago, the Saudi king discussed this issue, saying: “Let us work and let them say whatever they want to say,” while also quoting the Islamic saying: “May God have mercy on the one who shows me my flaws.”
There is no government in the world that likes being criticized. However governmental activities and critical journalism are two things that can never be separated. As the king explicitly said, the government should not feel strained because a newspaper in London or Sydney has said that Saudi Arabia will go bankrupt, or because they have expressed the opinion of an angry set of people. On the contrary, the questioning of Saudi Arabia’s ability to manage crises should motivate the government to prove that all media accusations are wrong, or it could begin to correct its operations; including those related to criticism of its human rights and politics. Is Saudi Arabia facing a real financial crisis? Of course it is; those observing the markets can see that there is a sharp slump in state revenues due to the drop in oil prices. This is not an easy challenge as it will need the government to be bold and resort to a bitter remedy, which will not resolve only today’s problem. It should also seek the reform of the government’s performance since the establishment of the administrative state that has been around since the late 1950s. If the government succeeds in its mission, we would then be thankful, but if it fails, all can blame it.
During the meeting, the king chose his words carefully without debating with any party – in conformity with the royal code of behavior – because the government has to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. A lot of people are today betting on the current government, mostly formed of young people and experts, being able to achieve a historic transition that moves and saves the kingdom from its dangerous dependence on oil.
As for the press that have waged media wars against Saudi Arabia, I can say that they will not maintain this one stance forever; we will soon witness a change in opinions and attitudes as soon as we see new conditions and results.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Oct. 30, 2015.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.
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