Late one night in New York, I was reading Prince Turki Al-Faisal’s incisive memoir, “The Afghanistan File,” on how the Saudi Arabian royal leadership — including the prince himself — once relied on carefully typed transcriptions of BBC World Service radio broadcasts. Indeed, this is how the Kingdom first learned of the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan. As I imagined the vividly recollected scene, I knew exactly what the prince was conveying — a previously hermetically sealed Kingdom, which is now a fading living memory.
Today in Riyadh at the Saudi Media Forum, as I look around the room, I see 400 journalism and media delegates from overseas joining over 900 peers from Saudi Arabia. The scene fills me with enormous pride and words are hard to find to describe the swelling in my heart, because I remember you “before.”
It was November 1999; I had just arrived to practice medicine at the National Guard hospital in Riyadh. Internet access with dial-up modems had only arrived in February of that year. Arab News was a green paper broadsheet. It would be almost 18 months before I was offered access to a mobile phone line. I declined, unable to imagine how I would need such a thing! And yet today, incredibly, I am joining distinguished delegates to speak about the impact of artificial intelligence on Saudi Arabia’s mature digital news media, as we share multilingual videos on social media and the world outside is completely captivated, wanting so badly to look in.
Certainly, the Saudi Media Forum is a remarkable opportunity for delegates to network, learn from one another and drive forward the edges of our fields, but what is so much more striking is the sheer number of my international colleagues who are arriving to Saudi Arabia for the first time.
Their curiosity, excitement and discovery is penetrating almost every conversation and dialog, and dismantling outdated preconceptions.
The new media must be adept, precisely because Saudi Arabia’s imagination about itself is on fire.
Because Saudi Arabia’s population is so young — 70 percent of you are below the age of 30 — it is impossible for the majority of Saudi youth to understand the remarkable shifts and reforms resulting in their own freedoms; female empowerment and equal opportunity employment for both men and women; improved divorce and custody legislation and the end of guardianship laws; but in the most extraordinary dimension of all, the incredible freedom liberating Saudi Arabia’s ability to imagine.
You thought petrochemicals were your superpower? Think again — it is the Saudi imagination that is your true rocket fuel, and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman knows it.
The true story of the Saudi Media Forum is the remarkable foundation of the Saudi journalistic body, as well as the level of support and pride the Kingdom is investing in those who speak from the Kingdom, but not for the Kingdom. The new media must be adept, precisely because Saudi Arabia’s imagination about itself is on fire.
Only this morning, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi minister of energy, spoke with great precision and compassion about the heavy responsibility the Saudi media now carries to inform international investors, venture capitalists and private equity of the true potential for investment in the Kingdom — a nation which is able to offer economic, political and currency stability while also commissioning megaprojects that can only be realized with true international and domestic engagement. Few others on the planet can offer this hive of possibility, creativity and political will.
Yes, the Saudi Media Forum is a landmark event — in its second iteration, even more newsworthy — but the arrival of this forum is an indicator to every Saudi resident and citizen that the Kingdom is going to face further scrutiny as it continues to shoot for the moon at an accelerating and meteoric pace.
• Qanta A. Ahmed, M.D., is a senior fellow of the Independent Women’s Forum, life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in Saudi Arabia.” Twitter: @MissDiagnosis.