Western media wakes up to the Saudi transformation

Western media wakes up to the Saudi transformation

Over the years we have become accustomed to seeing the international news media distort and caricature almost every aspect of Saudi politics and society. Whenever Saudi Arabia came up, in US news especially, we could expect an ill-informed talking head to berate our country for this and that. But a shift has occurred recently in how the media approaches Saudi Arabia, the effort they are making to understand us, and even the encouragement they are expressing for changes and reforms under way for some years now. A quick look at the past week’s English-language press shows a positive and optimistic portrait of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in The Times, an engaging and hopeful article on Saudi Arabia’s new politics in The Independent, and rather positive and balanced articles from Thomas Friedman and David Ignatius in the New York Times and Washington Post respectively.
Where once Saudi Arabia was — sometimes justifiably — criticized for the slow pace of change, for restrictions on women’s rights and for aspects of traditionalism and conservatism, today there is genuine excitement at seeing our country evolve and seeing the potential we are unleashing by giving women the equality they deserve and by becoming a modernizing and innovating country. When the giants of the British and American press publish analyses by their most experienced commentators that highlight what we are doing right, while fairly noting areas that need further improvement, we can say that the mood has definitely changed. The media is shifting from an “I got you” approach to Saudi Arabia toward an approach of constructive criticism.

When the giants of the British and American press publish analyses by their most experienced commentators that highlight what Saudi Arabia is doing right, while fairly noting areas that need further improvement, we can say that the mood has definitely changed.

Hassan bin Youssef Yassin

The most obvious change, of course, is that Saudi Arabia has been evolving at a faster pace than the West was used to, while Western democracies seem to be running into increasing trouble and potentially damaging populism. Smart analysts take note that there is something afoot in Saudi Arabia, and that there could be far-reaching positive consequences. As Iain Millership wrote in The Independent, Saudi Arabia’s “is the most significant reform process happening anywhere in the Middle East. If it succeeds, it will change the region and perhaps the world.” The headline on David Ignatius’ Washington Post article this month, following a trip to Saudi Arabia, reads: “Are Saudi Arabia’s reforms for real? A recent visit says yes.” Clearly, Western commentators feel that there is something afoot. There is also another aspect, namely that the traditional media’s old “I got you” approach is now moot, as social networks specialize in these barbs second-by-second, and we are rather used to and overexposed to them.
The constructive criticism we have seen from major media outlets in recent weeks and months is a truly encouraging sign, allowing us to move forward and perhaps opening up a new role also for the media as an assistant or accelerator of positive change. In this new era, a Saudi Arabia once misunderstood and unwilling to share issues is now identifying and tackling problems as they appear, taking important decisions, and not hesitating to adjust or correct them speedily if they do not work as intended. Prince Mohammed has applied his gift of taking a broad overview and analysis to simplify the next stages of decision-making very well. If the media is willing to highlight these positive steps and assist in pushing things further forward, then we are happy to let them play that role for the common good.
  • Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.
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