Spreading lies about KSA
Much of it was nonsense, of course, and the video segments aired in hour-long documentary on March 29 are already online. But people will believe what they want to believe and me whining about it will not change the perception that Saudi Arabia’s citizens live in the “dark ages.”
It’s difficult to tell whether the documentary’s undercover videographer and reporter “Yasser” duped writer and director James Jones, or Jones duped PBS, which up until now had a reputation for objective and informed documentary reporting.
The documentary alleges that a quarter of the Saudi population lives in poverty, that Saudis are eager for democratic change and are cowed into submission by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia). It purports that Saudi schools teach religious intolerance and that women are subjected to violence. Dissidents are imprisoned in filthy and overcrowded conditions and Shiites in the Eastern Province are under the lethal thumb of security forces.
One can’t argue with the content of the videos, both culled from online sources and Yasser, but context is everything and virtually the entire documentary is edited and narrated in a fashion that can’t be explained other than to say the producers fabricated a great deal of the narration accompanying the images.
Consider how the documentary loosely plays with the facts:
— An early segment implies a Saudi woman is begging in the street. She is a Yemeni illegally in the country. Without documentation illegal residents can’t obtain employment, which is typical in any developed country.
— Another segment implies that one-quarter of the Kingdom’s citizens and legal residents live in poverty. Videos record a slum in Makkah, neglecting to mention that individuals filmed were illegal foreigners, most appear to be South Asian (no Saudis to be seen), who can’t find jobs because they are not legal residents.
— Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with a semi-socialist system in which free medical care, education (even university education) and welfare payments among other benefits are provided to its citizens. These are hardly “crumbs” as the documentary states.
— Yasser films Hatoon Al-Fassi, a women’s rights activist visiting a home to urge women to get out to vote in municipal elections and to run for local office. Al-Fassi’s Baladi movement to get out the vote was public and supportive of the government’s policy to give women the right to vote. She also gave numerous high-profile media interviews. Yet Al-Fassi’s face was blurred implying her conduct was secret and subversive.
— Saudi women’s rights activist Lujain Al-Hathlool, who was interviewed in the documentary, has publicly stated the producers misled her about the content of the film and took her comments out of context.
— The overcrowded prison segment where blogger Raif Badawi was allegedly held was actually a deportation center designed to keep undocumented detainees in custody for only a short period of time. Much of the overcrowding is due to detainees destroying their identification and their home countries refusing to receive them.
— The beheading of a Burmese woman was not conducted in public as stated in the documentary but in a police station parking lot. A police officer videotaped the execution and had been disciplined for posting it online.
— While the violence in the Eastern Province is tragic, as are the deaths of young Saudi men, unsaid in the documentary is that protesters were carrying foreign flags, swearing allegiance to a foreign figure and had killed several Saudi government security men. Violence was not inflicted on protesters without some provocation.
— One video of a man beating a woman in public was not Saudi. Edited out of the footage was a crowd of onlookers detaining the man and aiding in his arrest by police officers.
I have long criticized conservatives and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) if their conduct warrants discussion. I have also criticized the policies of some the government ministries. Yet, I have never been silenced by the government for my opinions. It’s really a matter of how you express criticism that matters. We are not a democracy, but a monarchy and most Saudis will say this is their preferred form of government. We do not have free speech. Many of the criticisms leveled in the documentary are not due to government actions but are religious. Shariah is our preferred form of law and criticism of a Muslim country’s rulers is a very delicate issue in Islam for a variety of reasons that are not covered in the documentary.
The documentary states clearly that Saudis want a new form of government, but this is far from the truth. Stability is vital in this region and it’s the ruling monarchy that is giving us that stability. Most Saudis see no reason to change it.
The documentary plays into the fears of Americans. It uses video documentation to state its case, but subverts that documentation with highly inflammatory rhetoric that is wishful thinking among the producers. They shoehorned a false narrative into very real video footage. It’s powerful stuff, sure, but simply propaganda.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view