Oct 3, 2007
The Saudi Propaganda Machine
Saudi Arabia in recent years has been making efforts to assume the position -- occupied for decades by Egypt -- as the Arab world's leading propaganda player (Qatar’s Al Jazeera notwithstanding).
The Saudi influence programs benefited from the same midwifing from abroad that helped bring Nasser's Egyptian information behemoth into being before relations with the U.S. soured in the mid-1950's.
An excerpt from a piece from Arab Media & Society, which is part of The American University in Cairo's Center for Electronic Journalism.
To observe close-up how Saudi media influence operates I’ve chosen an episode from earlier this year... In April Al Jazeera ran an in-depth interview with Heikal [Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, a longtime journalist with privileged access to Arab and foreign leaders] spread over two hour-long programs in which he discussed the regional political situation in light of the tension between Iran and the United States over Iran’s nuclear energy program and Saudi diplomatic efforts to regulate various regional political disputes, notably with the Mecca agreement in February 2007 that established a short-lived Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah. Heikal was direct in his criticism of the Saudi diplomacy led by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and intimate friend of the Bush family, in particular the idea that Iran should be considered an Arab enemy, and placed Saudi efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict within a context of providing the United States with a fig leaf for military action against Iran.
Heikal appeared to have hit the mark. Saudi media immediately and comprehensively swung into action to belittle Heikal. The strongest response came in an opinion piece by the editor of the Saudi daily al-Riyadh, Turki al-Sudairy. Al-Riyadh is owned by group of businessmen and thus officially independent, but it is in effect under the control of Riyadh governor Prince Salman. Journalists on the paper say Sudairy was obliged to write his rebuttal. The title of the article sets a tone which is typical of this kind of attack on the credibility of particularly effective critics -- ajir li-ajir, which might be translated as “from one hireling/hired pen, to another.” The implication was that Heikal was paid to throw mud by a channel that is in turn also paid to throw mud. Sudairy accused Heikal of having been an official “state writer” in Nasser’s period, or the leading scribe in the state media who reveals to the masses and the world, through hints or more directly, the thoughts of the leadership. As former editor of al-Ahram, Egypt’s flagship state paper, this he undoubtedly was. But Sudairy said Heikal had subsequently mounted an unsuccessful bid to become Saudi Arabia’s official scribe, before finally finding a new home in Qatar. “Finally, Heikal found an opportunity to be a ‘state writer’ but in a statelet with hardly half a million people, when this mole of a country (habbat al-khal) Qatar made him its clownish official spokesperson … against the kingdom, which I can affirm does not pay him any attention,” Sudairy wrote. “This is Heikal—pay him and he’ll say anything … It’s difficult to accept any information from a hired pen who has not been deterred by the fact that he is now eighty years old. And what makes it worse is that he is a hired pen working for another hired pen.”
Two regular columnists in the Prince Salman family vehicle Asharq al-Awsat also laid into Heikal. Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian columnist and senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, accused him of arrogance and going beyond the limits of political politesse for attacking the “Arab peace initiative” launched under Saudi sponsorship in March 2007 and describing Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak—a close Saudi ally—of “living in a world of fantasy” in the Sinai tourist resort of Sharm al-Sheikh. Employing humor, Fandy mocked Heikal’s attack on diplomatic envoy Prince Bandar, writing: “If a camel’s leg went lame in Never-Never Land, he [Heikal] would say Prince Bandar bin Sultan was behind it.” Heikal in his Al Jazeera appearance had claimed that he had taken former U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers into his bathroom for secret conversations that could not be picked up by surveillance. Playing on the double meaning of the phrase al-‘ada al-sirriyya (literally, “secret habit” but also a euphemism for masturbation) Fandy wrote: “Heikal practiced the same ‘secret habit’ on his farm at Birqash whenever he wanted to discuss confidential affairs, as he told Al Jazeera, since the Israel Academic Bureau is located in the floor below his apartment in Cairo.”
Finally, Lebanese columnist Samir Atallah wrote a more sober critique of Heikal in another piece in Asharq al-Awsat. “We don’t know how long Heikal will continue writing history from one perspective, repeating the same thing and the same conviction, forgetting that he has a special responsibility since he is not an ordinary historian or journalist but a political and ideological figure from a critical period during the nation’s history,” he wrote. It wasn’t until the last paragraph of the article that it transpired that Attallah was in fact writing to refute Heikal’s criticism of Saudi Arabia. His closing words: “Saudi Arabia entered into conflicts with Nasserist Egypt on its own borders, not the borders of Egypt, and in its own cities not those of Egypt. As for Egypt’s wars with Israel, Saudi Arabia joined them alongside Egypt in a manner that no one understands more than Heikal. Saudi Arabia also helped Egypt in its war of attrition, militarily and economically.”
This is just one example of a phenomenon that consistently repeats itself in the Arab media and in particular with respect to Saudi Arabia. It demonstrates the power of the Saudi media to respond to criticism, its intolerance to criticism, and its use of non-Saudi writers —- the co-opted liberal intelligentsia -- to deliver the counterpunches.
The only major challenge to what Naomi Sakr has called this “Saudi space” (al-fada` al-sa‘udi) comes from Al Jazeera, and to a much lesser degree Hizbollah’s Al Manar television, the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi and a host of opposition and independent newspapers around the region. This Al Jazeera challenge is considerable and is a major headache for Saudi leaders. While Al Arabiya is displayed in Saudi embassies as Saudi Arabia’s official mouthpiece, Al Jazeera’s correspondents are vindictively denied access to Saudi Arabia and Saudi companies refrain from advertising to avoid the ire of the Saudi government. Reports that Al Jazeera remains the most watched news channel appear to considerably irk Saudi Arabia. A joint University of Maryland and Zogby International poll of viewers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates in October 2005 found that Al Jazeera was ahead with 65 percent of viewers, followed by a host of Saudi-owned or Saudi-friendly channels—Al Arabiya, with 34 percent, and MBC1, LBC, Abu Dhabi Television and the Egyptian Satellite Channel. Asharq al-Awsat attacked the poll saying it led respondents on by listing Al Jazeera first in the formulation of questions and using a small polling sample in Saudi Arabia. Oddly, though, the article still boasted that “Al Arabiya came first in the poll as the most-watched second choice channel.
In conclusion, Saudi Arabia has made an immense effort to control the flow of information in the Arab world and assure positive coverage of its politics and society, or often to assure no coverage at all. This effort has involved saturating the Arab viewer in Arab and Western entertainment in the form of dramas, quiz shows, comedies, films, and “soft religion” and only as much politics as is necessary. Saudi Arabia’s pan-Arab media empire promotes specific messages which present themselves as “liberal”, “reformist”, “moderate” and “modern”, but they are also conspicuously Washington-friendly and anti-al-Qa‘ida, Hizbullah, Iran or any other body presenting a challenge to the Pax Americana in the Arab world and the governments who form part of that constellation. This media presence has been constantly evolving; it was not until 2003 that the response to Al Jazeera came with Al Arabiya and by this time the pan-Arab media had become a useful tool for the ruling elite to challenge Islamists and promote a limited Saudi domestic agenda of openness which has involved co-opting as many “liberal intellectuals” as possible. While Al Jazeera has been the strongest challenger of this media empire, it will be interesting to see what impact the BBC’s new Arabic television channel, due to start later this year, will have on the scene.
Related story: Saudi Arabia’s Media Influence