Video Source: Youtube.
A new documentary, Saudi Arabia Uncovered (2016), shows footage secretly filmed inside the kingdom, and highlights the tension between state oppression and freedom of speech embodied in global technology. The film was broadcast in Britain on ITV on 22 March 2016. You can see reports on the film here, here and here. Circulation of the film online coincides this week with a US State Department Country Report (here) damning human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. On 12 April 2016, a jailed blogger profiled in the above film, Raif Badawi, was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize, which recognizes courageous writers who defend freedom of speech. In 2013, Badawi was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for writing a liberal blog. He started a hunger strike from prison in December 2015; his sister was briefly imprisoned in January 2016. Badawi's family fled and took refuge in Canada.
"Ensaf Haidar, wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, will collect the freedom of speech award on his behalf." Image Source: Patrick Seeger/EPA via The Guardian.
The documentary is part of a flurry of negative American and UK media coverage of Saudi Arabia this spring. In March 2016, a University of Waterloo talk and a Washington DC Codepink conference revealed brewing western speculation that Saudi Arabia is not sustainable. In part, that is due to falling oil prices, and an unfolding "Shakespearean story ... over who will be the next king." There were negative reports on the kingdom in Foreign Affairs and The Atlantic in March and April 2016.
"In this lecture Bruce Riedel discusses Middle East policy with a focus on Saudi Arabia and its evolving role in the region. Riedel is director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. ... Riedel was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House." Centre for International Governance Innovation, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada (31 March 2016). Video Source: Youtube.
At the centre that debate is Hillary Clinton and her American presidential bid, which should raise some red flags on the timing and tone of information releases. One Codepink conference participant reported in HuffPo last month that Clinton had overseen billions in arms deals to Saudi Arabia to enable attacks on Yemen (this was reported at The Intercept in February 2016). Saudi Arabia heavily funded Clinton's presidential campaign and Clinton Foundation donors concluded related weapons deals via the US State Department while Clinton was Secretary of State. This spring, journalists and blogs began reading Clinton's leaked, released and hacked emails. WikiLeaks released PDFs of secret Saudi diplomatic cables in November 2015 and Clinton's Secretary-of-State declassified emails on 29 February 2016. On 9 March 2016, Zero Hedge sifted through different releases of the Clinton emails and found that the 2012 Benghazi incident was funded by the Saudis:
Other conservative reports claim there is a phone conversation transcript, released 14 April 2016 (here), apparently confirming that Clinton knew that Benghazi was planned and not a spontaneous protest."This means we have an e-mail from a trusted Clinton adviser that claims the Saudis funded the Benghazi attack, and not only was this not followed up on, but there is not any record of this e-mail ever existing except for the Russia Today leak."
BREAKING NEWS >> State Department Belatedly Releases New Clinton #Benghazi Documents: https://t.co/7gqAU5zlmv via @JudicialWatch— Judicial Watch (@JudicialWatch) April 14, 2016
Loujain Alhathloul in Belgium in 2015. Image Source: Facebook.
Beyond American politics, the deeper question is how this monarchical theocracy can preserve its worldview when confronted with the free flow of information. Also profiled in the Saudi Arabia Uncovered documentary and the University of Waterloo talk is Saudi women's rights activist Loujain Alhathloul, still in her twenties but considered the third most powerful woman in the Arab world. On 24 March 2016, she recanted on her blog and on Twitter for her participation in Saudi Arabia Uncovered. She stated she had been misquoted, while also mentioning that threats against her in Saudi Arabia have increased, although her Facebook page lists her as based in Canada:
In 2015, Alhathloul was jailed for ten weeks for driving from the UAE into Saudi Arabia, violating a ban against women driving in the kingdom. She rose to prominence through her participation on social media; her global public profile creates a bubble of protection around her, while she moves between two worlds of open and closed information."Lately, I appeared in some foreign media channels, which resulted in more attacks against me, and the number of threats of murder or physical harm against me have increased due to the creation of ugly hashtags by instigators, for the purpose of inciting and mobilizing followers against me; this does not represent a tolerant society at all. In these interviews, I spoke about my experience and what I went through personally, and I always ended what I said with my optimism towards the future of the Kingdom and its youth, but - unfortunately - this part was usually omitted during the editing stages of said interviews.What the majority does not know is that, for the past 4 years, I have refused to appear in interviews with foreign media channels, because I knew of the threat that they pose to individuals and for fear of being used as a media tool wrongfully, as well as the tendency of some reporters to paint an ugly picture of Saudi Arabia by exploiting and cutting out parts of what is being said by its citizens - especially those who were part of the Kingdom's scholarship program - without any attempt to show the full picture in a fair and professional manner.I only agreed to appear in foreign media channels as early as last November. Those who follow journalistic affairs in Saudi Arabia know that since the month of October, 2015, the Kingdom has - unprecedentedly - allowed large numbers of foreign journalists, who have shown an interest in covering Saudi Arabia's local affairs, into the Kingdom. Only then did I agree to participate in these interviews, because I trusted that these journalists have met all the official requirements and that I can deal with them without any worries; respective authorities would not allow in those whom they know will slander the Kingdom and directly insult its citizens. My interviews revolved around my personal experience in the past few years, including everything that has happened to me during the municipal council elections in the city of Riyadh and a little about current public affairs. During the aforementioned interviews, I wondered about the reasons that drove the local committee for municipal elections to exclude my name from the list of female candidates without any lawful justification. This incident had caught the interest of many foreign journalists and media figures, while local media ignored it completely.A few days ago, a documentary was released, which portrays Saudi Arabia from a very radical perspective, and shows clips of extreme incidents as being part of everyday life in Saudi Arabia, not to mention the exaggeratedly dramatic tone of the documentary and the many obvious lies and discrepancies in some of its parts. I was one of those who participated in the documentary for one reason only; those journalists were trusted by the authorities and were respectfully welcomed into the country. During the few minutes in which I appear in the documentary, I only spoke about my personal experience. However, the subject of my interview was used as part of a sensationalist and unbalanced documentary.The attacks I am currently being met with are largely unfair, especially since those journalists were here in Saudi Arabia, and I trusted that the official authorities would not admit anyone who is only interested in damaging the public image of the Kingdom, especially using an unbalanced documentary film such as Saudi Arabia Uncovered. What I did not know was that their production team took advantage of the opportunity to produce a documentary film showing only one side of the situation in Saudi Arabia. Sure, some violations occur in the Kingdom every now and then, but that does not give anyone the right to portray them as normal daily practices that always happen or that they are the only scenes that accurately depict the current situation in Saudi Arabia. In addition, ignoring reform attempts by Saudi citizens belittles their meaningful initiatives and deeply pains me, even though I remain very optimistic about a bright future for my country and its citizens. In the end, I am only responsible for what I had said."
Alhathloul in the late 2014 border incident for which she was imprisoned in 2015. Video Source: Youtube.