Saudi Arabia always had a communication problem. While one has to admit that in the past two years there has been unmatched international media access to the country, many Saudi officials do not yet understand the basic PR lesson that if we don’t tell our story, someone else will.
On the other hand, not only are some journalistic practices of several international media outlets questionable, but sometimes so is the the common sense of some of the editors who work in their newsrooms.
Take the infamous — and supposedly “leaked” — recent video of prominent princes, former officials and super-wealthy businessmen sleeping on the lobby floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. I am shocked that so many outlets, including highly respectable ones — such as Sky News (UK) — didn’t stop to question the authenticity of the video before broadcasting it; especially since not a single face was recognizable throughout it.
How could such outlets, usually noted for their accuracy, not notice the obvious about this video: Since when are corruption suspects, many of whom are being investigated for financial crimes committed jointly, allowed to stay together in a way that enables them to share notes?
Far more importantly, didn’t anyone notice the rifles lying on the floor next to the sleeping suspects? Since when are prisoners allowed access to firearms? If this doesn’t raise a flag in a newsroom, I am not sure what would!
Another absurd assumption about the ongoing crackdown on corruption is that it is in reality a clamp on freedom of expression. This was written in a Washington Post op-ed by Marwan Kraidy, who is supposed to be an expert on Arab media given that this is his field of study and the subject of his books.
This false assumption is based on the fact that three of the corruption suspects have established influential local or regional media outlets. However, the obvious question is: How does this explain the other 198 people, who have no media interests, being investigated?
“From an unsubstantiated video of corruption detainees sleeping on the floor at the Ritz, to claims that Lebanon PM was barred from traveling, Riyadh needs to counter fake news more effectively.” - Faisal J. Abbas
Furthermore, none of the media outlets owned by the people in custody were ever really classified as “opposition outlets” — in fact, all of them toed the line, so it is not clear what such a hypothetical crackdown would achieve.
Then there were the equally unsubstantiated claims that Saudi Arabia barred the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from traveling back to Beirut. I am not sure what more can be done to convince some people otherwise, when Hariri himself has left the country after repeating several times that he was not held captive.
Of course, the latest conspiracy theory is that Riyadh has allowed Hariri, his wife and eldest son Hussam to go, but are holding on to his other two children as a way to ensure that he abides by what Riyadh dictates.
This highly imaginative plot is possibly suitable for a mafia-themed film in which the gangsters require a financial ransom, but one would hope that most right-minded people understand that this is not how politics work; even when you want to apply pressure.
The simplest counter-argument to this hypothesis is: What would Saudi Arabia do if Hariri simply tweeted saying that Riyadh was holding his two children hostage? The former PM would not only be able to secure his family’s freedom, but would also be able to turn global public opinion against the Kingdom at the same time.
There is so much imagination and lack of understanding out there that one just has to wonder what scenario will be made up tomorrow.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is changing and much of what the Kingdom has gone through over the past two years is nothing short of ground-breaking. Everything from the curbing of the religious police’s powers, to allowing women to drive, to hosting world-class entertainment events has never been tried before; so I guess the conclusion is that we should forgive outsiders for misunderstanding us, but we should not forget the need to communicate far more efficiently and effectively.
*This blog was originally published in Arab News.