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Opinion: The Media Campaign against Saudi Arabia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond (L) and his Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir hold a press conference in Riyadh on Wednesday, October 28, 2015. (AFP Photo)

The past weeks have seen frenzied competition among the British press to see who can take better aim at Saudi Arabia. The anti-Saudi media campaign has, by turns, concentrated on the notion that the Kingdom supports terrorism, and called for amnesty for a young Saudi man condemned to death on terrorism charges and for the release of a British man who has been imprisoned for breaking the law in Saudi Arabia. What is interesting about this campaign is that each case can be characterized as an attempt by a Western country to impose its own societal norms on another, presenting its own values as a gift that has fallen from the heavens and which is being generously donated to a third world country.

This media campaign has been almost unceasing in recent months, and each time it appears it bears the same agenda it had before. And don’t bother asking regarding the subject matter of the criticisms; it is the same tired list of usual suspects: the issue of women driving cars, women’s dress codes, human rights, the death penalty, and so on it goes; and it seems that it will continue to go on, so long as the press exists in Britain and so long as there exists a kingdom known as Saudi Arabia.

While speaking with some fellow British journalists, they have often asked me regarding what they term as being “delicate” Saudi sensitivities regarding criticism of their country in the Western press. My answer to this was simple: “Where exactly are these criticisms to which you refer?” All I have seen in the Western press is a campaign which attacks the Saudi judicial system and the Islamic Shari’a on which it is based. There is a big difference between not agreeing with a particular judicial decision—this is your right and no one can dispute you on this—and imposing your own position so that you in effect become both public prosecutor and high court judge all at once, demanding that others must conform to your point of view. What the Western press needs to understand here is that it is by no means necessary for 20 million or so Saudis to be enamored with a particular judicial decision; Saudis are well aware that their objection to a decision is one thing, and their attacking the very fabric on which those decisions are based is another.

I am not among those who believe there is some kind of Western conspiracy against Saudi Arabia. Instead, I believe the recent anti-Saudi rhetoric among media outlets represents more of a drive to give their readers the kind of titillating stories they wish to read regarding Riyadh and everything surrounding it. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the place where more than a billion Muslims worldwide turn daily, and is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, in addition to being the most stable country in a region engulfed by chaos and destruction. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest exporter of petroleum; as such it is pretty understandable why editors would be keen to get as much hits as possible by focusing on stories coming out of the Kingdom. What is not understandable, however—and is totally unacceptable—is to use this as a cover to abandon every last vestige of journalistic credibility and professionalism, as well as abusing the wide freedoms given to the press in Britain to shape public opinion, in a way that at times frankly seems completely lacking in impartiality and at odds with Britain’s professed journalistic norms. Prince Mohammed Bin Nawwaf, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, was absolutely right when he said recently that there has been an “alarming change in the way Saudi Arabia is discussed in Britain” which could have “serious repercussions.” The seriousness here is not necessarily just related to the media attacks themselves or the exaggerated way they are carried out or even their transgressing established norms; this is something we expect will remain ongoing in the British press. What is serious, and very dangerous, is when this media campaign begins to influence the British government’s official policies toward Saudi Arabia, with the recent cancelation of a British Ministry of Justice contract that would have provided training to Saudi prison guards being a case in point. Saudi–British relations have remained strong during the past decades, and it is in both countries’ interests that these ties continue in a way that will benefit, and not harm, both of them. We must also bear in mind that it is not up to one side to work to improve these relations; the interests are mutually beneficial and it is therefore incumbent on both sides to work in order to improve them.

There is no doubt that the Western world enjoys a very advanced human rights environment, but that does not give Western nations the right to seek to impose their sole view on other countries around the world without accepting any discussion on the matter. For example, the British press sees some of the punishments based on Islamic Shari’a law as “harsh,” and this is discussed very openly. At the same time, Western countries don’t accept any other society, nation, or culture disagreeing with their legalization of homosexual relations even when that objection is based on the argument that such relations contradict basic human nature. And does the Western world not see that, from an Eastern cultural perspective, the practice of abandoning one’s elders in old people’s homes—something very accepted in Western countries—for us represents an outrageous violation of basic human rights?

Logic, reason, and even law dictate that all societies have the right to form themselves according to their own culture, principles, and locally accepted legislation. No culture has the right to impose its own interpretations of religion or society on another. Each culture has an absolute right to define its own vision in this regard.