Don’t overanalyze the Saudi Media Forum

Don’t overanalyze the Saudi Media Forum

Panelists discuss the state of the Middle East press during last week's Saudi Media Forum in Riyadh. (Supplied)

As a journalist, I have tremendous respect for Jason Rezaian, the former Washington Post Tehran bureau chief, who was unfairly convicted of espionage and was held for 544 days in an Iranian jail.
He might not know this, but I — in my former capacity as editor of Al Arabiya English — was one of a large number of journalists who campaigned heavily for his release. The campaign was in response to a call by his Executive Editor Martin Baron (whom I met at Davos at the time) who was spearheading efforts to free Rezaian.
I say this because I find it necessary for him and his Washington Post readers to know that we — Saudi journalists — also reject threats to, and abuse of, our colleagues, be they in Saudi Arabia or anywhere in the world.
And before anyone jumps to conclusions or starts making snarky comments, I invite them all to check the archive for our position and coverage of the atrocious murder of our former deputy editor (and my late friend), Jamal Khashoggi.
With that in mind, when I read Rezaian’s latest Op-Ed, “Saudi Arabia’s press freedom masquerade,” I couldn’t help but wish — for the sake of his own record and credibility — that he would focus on his area of genuine expertise: Iran.
Of course, I do not mean that Rezaian is not entitled to write about or criticize the Kingdom. At the same time, if he was going to present such a fascinating hypothesis about a completely trivial matter, such as the recently held Saudi Media Forum, then he could have at least bothered to get on a plane and come to Riyadh to find that none of his assumptions were true. (And by the way, if he comes as an American tourist, he doesn’t need a visa.)
Yet, the truth is Rezaian has completely missed the plot when he portrays the forum as the “next phase of a massive public relations campaign” aimed at re-branding the Kingdom. He also assumed that the government had poured “enormous amounts of time and money” into the forum, when the case was that it was a very modest event compared to others the Kingdom has recently hosted.

Furthermore, Rezaian did his readers a disservice when he quoted the forum’s president, Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi, but failed to mention that he is not a government official. Yes, Al-Harthi is a member of the Saudi Journalists Association, but he also works in the private sector as the editor of the region’s leading women’s weekly. And just to be clear, neither of us — he nor I — speaks for the government.

Western journalists need to understand that reforms happening in the Kingdom are real, and are not aimed at impressing them.

Faisal J. Abbas

But the most laughable part of Rezaian’s article was his assumption that Saudi Arabia has a PR machine that it is “trying to tell the world that it is time for moving on from the killing of Khashoggi.”
Are you serious, Jason? Do you honestly think the Kingdom has a functioning PR machine? If anything, we — as a country — are guilty of the complete opposite: A long list of mishandled issues, even ones when we were the victims, is the best proof that the assumption is wrong.
Secondly, let me make it clear to you: Nobody in their right mind in Saudi Arabia today believes that the Khashoggi atrocity is over. On the contrary, we realize very clearly that even after justice is served, it will remain a scar on the Kingdom’s forehead for a very long time.
This is not only because of the brutality of the murder itself, but because such crimes are simply not in the DNA of our government. In other words, Saudi Arabia is the victim of its own good record on this front (nobody around the world would have blinked if this had happened in Turkey or Syria, for example.)
Rezaian and many other Western journalists also need to understand that reforms happening in the Kingdom are real, and more importantly, that the reforms are not aimed at impressing them nor are they part of a global PR campaign to make Saudi Arabia look nice and cuddly.
Indeed, women are now allowed to drive and to travel freely; the guardianship rules have been lifted and world class entertainment is happening because the government believes it is the right of the people and in the Saudi people’s best interest — it is as simple as that.
Putting aside the murder of Khashoggi for one second, surely someone as knowledgeable as Rezaian who has first-hand experience of Iran, would much rather we have progressive government. That progressive government is putting forward the same kinds of reforms and normal life that the brutal regime in Tehran is killing protesters seeking those same rights.
For the record, while I of course think the Saudi Journalists Association is entitled to hold events and gatherings, given that the Kingdom is the regional leader when it comes to media, I too have a long list of reservations about the Saudi Media Forum and how it was organized. However, I understand that this is the first time that such an event has been organized by the association and as such, it is only normal to have many areas for improvement for the future. This is the case for any new initiative the association, an elected body, may decide upon.
Among my reservations were, first, I didn’t think the timing or the format were appropriate. My immediate reaction upon first hearing about it was that it would be wrongly perceived in the way Rezaian saw it. However, unlike Rezaian, I happen to be on the ground and know for a fact that the forum was not intended as a PR gimmick in any way, shape, or form.
More importantly, while some of the topics were of interest, others such as those dealing with fake news and Old vs. New media were too much a mind-numbing cliche.
Of course, where I agree with Rezaian’s article is that if we are going to have a media forum in the Kingdom, then we can’t do it without mentioning the Khashoggi murder. I am not sure what greater signal organizers want when they recently had the Crown Prince himself appearing on CBS, condemning the crime and saying that such actions against journalists were the real threat to Saudi Arabia.

Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view