A change of heart in the Saudi media

The fall of Baghdad and the bombings in Riyadh have made the Arab News think seriously about the enemy within, says the paper's editor.

Published May 18, 2003 12:14AM (EDT)

In the weeks immediately following the war in Iraq, Arab News, a prominent Saudi Arabian publication based in Riyadh, began voicing a striking shift in political perspective. The English-language daily published a number of intensely self-examining, self-critical articles confronting some of the country's most deeply rooted problems: corruption in the government and the media, and the virulent presence of militant Islamic forces. In light of the devastating attacks in Riyadh on Monday, this sobering perspective appears to be gaining momentum across the region.

The dramatic shift began with the fall of Baghdad. On April 21, just days after the Saddam regime had crumbled, Arab News published a column by Qatari-based writer Abdulhamid Al-Ansary, in which he condemned the wider Arab media's blind support of the brutal Iraqi dictator. "Why did the Arab media consent to align itself with the Iraqi regime while at the same time pretending that it was with the people?" he wrote. "For how long will we be cursed by attaching ourselves emotionally to defeated heroes?"

Monday's triple-suicide attack in Riyadh rocked the very heart of the Saudi Kingdom, and appears to have only accelerated the shift in mood. In an editorial titled "The Enemy Within," published two days after the bombings, Arab News declared: "The environment that produced such terrorism has to change."

Khaled Al-Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News, was educated in the United States, Britain and Pakistan, and spent a number of years living in the U.S. In addition to his editorial duties, he's a highly respected political columnist who contributes to a number of prominent publications in the region and in Europe. On Friday, Salon spoke with Al-Maeena about the impact of this week's bombings in Riyadh, and the gathering wave of sentiment in the country and the region demanding greater political and cultural reforms -- and stronger action to confront and destroy terrorists.

"Frankly speaking, we are tired of them," he said. "If you want me to speak boldly, I'm tired of obscure ranters. I'm tired of people who have very little knowledge of religion trying to force down my throat teachings that do not subscribe to the views of Islam."

This marks an extraordinary departure from the outwardly defiant, even conspiratorial language frequently seen in Arab News and many other media outlets across the region before the war began, whether in daily newspapers or on popular satellite TV stations like Al-Jazeera. To be sure, Arab News has sometimes served as a voice of reason -- in a March 16 editorial, it debunked the myth that the imminent U.S.-led war was a religious one targeting Islam. But this view appeared alongside more typical inflammatory pieces like "How a Cabal Manipulates America's Post-September 11 Psyche," in which Arab News staffer Mohammed Al-Khereiji decried Pentagon advisor Richard Perle as "just another rabid anti-Arab and anti-Islamic Jewish demagogue espousing Israeli interests."

Now Arab News, as well as a number of other prominent Arab publications -- including Lebanon's Al-Hayat and Saudi Arabia's Al-Watan -- is gazing deeply inward, convinced of the need to confront the wave of Islamic terrorism currently shaking the regional landscape.

Al-Maeena believes it must be a fight to the finish.

On Wednesday an editorial in Arab News titled "The Enemy Within" declared: "We have to face up to the fact that we have a terrorist problem here ... For too long we have ignored the truth." Historically, wouldn't public expression of such an opinion have been unthinkable inside the Kingdom? Have the bombings in Riyadh stirred a sense of big change there, particularly in the media?

There were people who had been expressing such thoughts and ideas as we were, expressing similar views. But there were a lot of people who felt that these acts that were being carried out outside the country ... it was a denial. I think September 11 was a watershed, because a lot of people did believe that there were those whose minds had been preyed upon by bin Ladens and other such people, and it was time that we should be more careful.

But what happened on Monday in Riyadh brought the point home: that the enemy is within. There are those people who, if you do not control them, people who are spreading such messages ... their ideas, if they're not contained, will cause further evil acts to happen.

So you see this self-critical perspective as part of a growing trend that began after September 11?

Well, yes, before September 11, even in the United States, people had no idea whether these people existed or not, the perpetrators of such crimes. You'd read about them, but people were indifferent: "Well, this is not happening in my backyard."

September 11, although it happened in America, it affected us ... Saudi Arabia became the victim of a campaign, because the American media started applying the principle of collective guilt to all of us. Everyone here was perceived as a bin Laden supporter, or a supporter of terrorism. Every Saudi became a suspect in the eyes of the American media.

How does the average person in Riyadh feel about the bombings? What's the mood like there now in the cafes and on the streets? Do others agree with the kind of soul-searching commentary that Arab News has been publishing, that "the cult of suicide bombings has to stop," and that the "environment that produced such terrorism has to change"?

I think by and large they do agree that whatever the cause, there is no justification for this type of act. The mood in Riyadh and other places is one of sadness. There is a low-level depression. We felt sorry for the people who died, as we felt sorry for all the people who died in New York. Let me assure you with all of the solemnity at my command that I do not know of one person -- and I know thousands of people here in the Arab world -- who felt happy at what happened in New York. The pictures that came out initially of a few kids dancing ... saying, 'Oh America has been hit ...' saying, 'Oh, great, let America understand ...' but at that time nobody knew the implications.

But when people saw that thousands of people died, and you could see the pain and the grief and the horror spreading, people felt sad. After all, we're human beings. We're not devoid of feelings and emotions. And the same thing was felt here in Riyadh ... when I saw that the Americans, the Filipinos, the Brits, the Australians, the Indians, the Pakistanis ... these people have come here to help us develop the country. They have not landed by parachute. They've entered the country on a legal basis, and they're here as partners in progress, so why take their lives? Why snuff out their dreams?

How have the bombings there impacted you personally? How have you felt this week, and particularly in your role as a top editor in the media there?

Well, I wear many hats; I'm an editor, but I'm also a social worker and a sports promoter -- I do these things out of commitment to the idea that one should play a role in society. As a human being it has impacted me a lot. I'm upset and sad, and the last three years I've been walking around with a heavy heart, as many other people have. Today I had about 30 people at my house for lunch, family members and friends. We were sitting and talking, and the mood was somber. There was not much to laugh about.

What also pains me is that for years we prided ourselves on being a country that was almost crime-free. In Saudi Arabia you don't have violent crimes per se, no armed bank robberies ... We do have crime, I'm not saying we're angels ... but to have all this happen, 15 of the 19 [hijackers] from Saudi Arabia, other acts that have taken place, and now this. It has really blemished our track record. Society is quite calm here, but you see this political violence and it negates all that we really stand for.

There appears to be a growing divide in the Arab region, between those who want to move forward with democracy and modernization, and those who look to the past in favor of theocracy and strict religious controls. In a recent commentary in the Lebanese paper Al-Hayat, Mohammad Al Rumaihi called this a struggle between "new and old Arabs." Would you agree with him that this divide is now greater than ever before?

No, I don't think the number of people who want theocracy is on the increase. Islam is a way of life, but while there may be no separation of church and state, there are clear and defined roles for the people in authority. Unfortunately the hijackers, and those who are intolerant and who have malice ... have created a real problem. Men of good will have kept quiet. And the Muslims let themselves, or let their children be preyed upon by intolerant people, by the bin Ladens of this world, and that has caused all this.

Yes, I think there is a struggle going on for the soul of the Muslim world. For a long time we have kept quiet and have allowed these people to have a platform.

But you think they only represent a small minority?

They are a vocal and growing minority, but on the whole if you ask any young person what he wants, he wants to be computer-savvy, he wants the Internet, he wants to work. We do not want to be mere bystanders. We want to be travelers on the road of life, on the road of progress. But you're right, some have succumbed to these shrill voices, and as such, these people began to assume more and more power.

How big a hand has the Arab media had in stirring up anti-Western fervor in the past? Isn't it largely responsible for it?

The media is responsible and also the governments are responsible. I think the governments should be aware that we have to have a curriculum -- I'm not saying the curriculum is directly responsible, but our focus would be on science and technology and other things. I think we have to be global ... I think it's time to let people talk. There are so many Arab intellectuals, so many writers ... they should be given a chance.

Does the environment exist there now for such free expression? How much does the Saudi government monitor or control the content of Arab News or other publications?

Arab News, as with its sister publication [Asharq Al-Awsat, a prominent Arab-language daily published in London], is privately owned. There are other newspapers in the area that are much more vocal, such as Al Watan ... other privately owned papers, and they talk with focus, and they're not afraid to call a spade a spade.

In fact, today I had an article in an Arabic paper called the Economist, and I said that those who blame things on the Israelis and the CIA better understand that this is nonsense. The enemy is within, as stated the other day. People are getting tired ... our religion is being tarnished, our image is being tarnished.

So is Arab News free to say anything it wants?

Yes, we are free to criticize the governments and all, but for a long time people were afraid to take on the extremists. But in the last two years, and especially after September 11, people sort of began parrying with them, if you know what I mean. Now I think there will be people who will go in for the knockout punch.

Frankly speaking, we are tired of them. If you want me to speak boldly, I'm tired of obscure ranters, I'm tired of people who have very little knowledge of religion trying to force down my throat teachings that do not subscribe to the views of Islam.

Why has there been so much fear in the past of this vocal minority? Why hasn't the government or the press spoken out more forcefully against it?

The press was following the government, waiting to see. I think we have to come out of the closet. We really have to take on these people, these obscure ranters, and these people who have nothing to say except ...

But the government has been afraid of doing that?

Yes, well, people didn't want to rock the boat, or wake what they perceived to be a giant. I personally think we have to take them head on. It has to be a fight to the finish.

This week the Israeli press said that the attacks in Riyadh were aimed as much at the current Saudi regime as they were at Westerners. Do you agree?

Well, I don't need the Israeli press to say that, yes, I think this was a hit against the government, a hit against Saudi Arabia. They tried to strike at the very foundation of society. They have harmed us economically. We are part of the global economy in many aspects. What kind of confidence or climate of investment will this type of action bring? It will bring fear. What company is going to invest or send its people here, Westerners or non-Westerners?

In a recent column in Arab News, Abdulhamid Al-Ansary wrote that "the Arab media succeeded in deceiving its people" with its coverage of the war in Iraq. He also emphasized that the goal of the region's competing satellite TV channels "is to win the street at any price." Are the satellite channels doing the bidding of their governments by fanning the flames of anti-Western sentiment, or are they indeed driven by sensationalism simply to win viewers?

I'm glad you asked, because these channels are all privately owned, Al-Jazeera, or Al Arabia ... the governments do not own them, in fact the government channels are very boring. So these stations want viewers -- like the Nielsen ratings you have in the States.

In many ways Dr. Ansary is right ... But remember the journalists on the American side were the ones with the attacking group, they were with those firing the shots. The journalists on the other side were on the receiving end ... so when there are deaths you'll find the Arab TV crew focusing on charred bodies and the prisoners that the Americans have.

But isn't it a little strange for Al-Jazeera or other influential stations in the region to use a Western-style marketing mentality given that the media "product" they're pushing often has an anti-Western slant?

In all honesty, I don't think it was anti-Western. When [the U.S.] started attacking, I didn't think Al-Jazeera was sensationalizing. It tried to get viewers, but it was there on the ground. OK, it was reporting every day what the Iraqi minister of information was saying, but that guy was a buffoon, so it became a comedy show. But as far as the strikes, we wanted to see ... you know, it was this awesome thing, it was terror ... I spoke to a lady from Baghdad a couple of days ago who was leaving there, and she said she wished she'd died because she didn't want to be injured, and the noise, the roar of the bombs ... she said, "To get one man you had to do all this?" Al-Jazeera was focusing on that.

But wasn't Al-Jazeera ignoring the importance of removing a despot like Saddam Hussein? Wasn't that an intention of the war? We've since seen the torture chambers and the mass graves ...

But that was not the expressed intention. They went in for weapons of mass destruction, then suddenly they said they wanted to remove him. I'm happy Saddam is gone, seeing the dead bodies and all ... I hope he's the last of the despots.

But this was the same Saddam who was [once] the darling of the Western world ... I'm going to write an article in a few days, saying the Americans have to stay there, that they have to come to terms with the situation, and have to really build Iraq back up.

Ever since September 11, mistrust of Saudi Arabia has been growing in the West. You've spent a lot of time in the U.S. yourself -- what would you most hope for Americans to know or understand about Saudi Arabia now?

Well, there isn't mistrust in the West, because the West also means Europe. Saudis still go to Europe with or without visas ...

Let's say America then ...

Yes, in America there is mistrust, and it's because of the media. [America is] applying the principle of collective guilt to all of us. I'm not a bin Laden supporter and never have been, and never will be. I know there are people who subscribe to his views -- I haven't met them but I know there are -- but what I'd like Americans to understand about Saudi Arabia is that just as not all Americans are serial killers or child molesters or kidnappers ... we are not [all] bin Laden.

In contrast to its reaction to the September 11 attacks, the Saudi government was quick to acknowledge the participation of 15 Saudi nationals in the Riyadh bombings. According to the Associate Press, the bomb sites were shown on official Saudi television, and the interior minister, Prince Nayef, issued harsh words not only for the attackers, but also for "religious figures who instigate violence." Is this an attempt to placate the U.S., or does it signal real change in the regime's outlook, especially in terms of clamping down on volatile religious leaders?

Fifteen is a very unlucky number for Saudis. [Laughs].

I don't think we are here to placate the U.S. We are a sovereign nation, not a banana republic. But I think we have to look really deep into our society ... I really think we have to solve our problems ourselves. In America, you always solve problems because you admit there are problems.

First of all, all of us have to admit there is a problem ... I'm glad the Saudi interior minister said this, because he felt there was a need to say it. We are a patriarchal society, and we have this sense of honor and shame like, "Oh we shouldn't talk about this fear ... ' We are not an angelic society living in heaven -- we live in the world. I think we have to admit there are people within our society who fall outside the pale of civilized behavior. They either have to be educated and taught and reprogrammed, or they have to be punished according to the existing laws of the land.

Saudi Arabia currently suffers from an astonishing 30 percent unemployment rate, and many in the West believe the country is a hotbed for terrorist activity. How important a role will the media play in bringing real economic and political reforms to the country?

Reforms need political will. The media is now focusing and I think the government is fully aware. But the media's role is to highlight the shortcomings of society, not to act as a P.R. arm of the government. And the media has realized this; we have some fantastic papers, some wonderful journalists ... who are pointing at the ills of society. I think we have a government that's listening now.

So it depends ... I think if you have the right ingredients for progress, yes, but if we do not admit that we have shortcomings then we'll be in serious trouble. The authorities and the media should be partners in progress, and we should not be suspicious of the media.

And I think people should come and see that we have nothing to hide in Saudi Arabia or other Arab states. I think we should allow more people to come in and write.

Do you believe it's possible to have a free, objective media in Saudi Arabia? And across the region?

Yes, it is possible and I think it exists. There are many journalists who write without fear or hindrance, and who are doing very well. And you have satellite TV with access to so many channels ...

I am an optimist. I think there is no alternative to reform. The bombings in Riyadh have been a wake-up call. I think our own media has to rise up to the challenge, to talk and uncover ... The media itself should be a reformer in many ways.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Al-qaida Iraq War Middle East Osama Bin Laden Terrorism