London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Prior to watching a private screening of “The Kingdom”, I was under the preconceived notion that it would depict Arabs and Muslims in a negative light.
“This will be another one of those films which portrays us as terrorists, and Americans, as usual, will come to save the day,” I thought to myself as I prepared to watch this new Hollywood blockbuster, the plot of which centers around a terrorist attack that hits a Western compound in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and the retaliation of a team of FBI agents who make a secret trip to Saudi Arabia to find those accountable.
I sat there holding my notebook, ready to pounce at the first inaccuracy however; despite some aspects which might be perceived by some as negative, many might be pleasantly surprised after watching this film, bearing in mind that Arabs have for a long time been among Hollywood’s favorite villains.
according to the book ‘Reel Bad Arabs,’ by internationally acclaimed author and media critic, Dr Jack Shaheen, out of 1000 films produced between 1896 and 2000 ( a year before that attacks of September 11th) that feature Arab or Muslim characters, 12 depictions were positive, 52 delivered were neutral, while the remaining 900 or so were negative. Yet, in a strange coincidence, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has had a reverse effect on the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims on the silver screen as the industry is now depicting Arabs in a more positive light ever before.
‘Kingdom of Heaven’ (2005) had a positive representation of Islamic military leader, Salahdine El Ayoubi, while hit television series “Lost”, “24” and “Sleeper Cell” had Arabs/Muslims as heroes. In fact, Sleeper Cell (2005) was the first ever American television series where the main character was a Muslim. The series centers around a Muslim FBI agent called Darwyn Saeed, who infiltrates a sleeper cell in the US.
From the looks of it, The Kingdom is riding the same wave.
Commenting on the American film and television industries post 9-11 efforts to distinguish between moderates and extremists, Ashraf Barhoum, the Palestinian actor who plays the role of Saudi Colonel Faris Al Ghazi in ‘The Kingdom’, told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “Sometimes the truth comes out after a horrific event, it is a shame that humans communicate better after disasters”.
Barhoum explains that he hesitated before agreeing to play “Faris Al Ghazi”, he tells Asharq Al Awsat that he spend a lot of time contemplating, before finally accepting the role. “I had some fears” he says adding that he frequently asked himself if this project came to “focus on or blame a particular side”. “But after reading the script, and meeting with (film director) Peter Berg, I felt confident”.
The actor says he felt Berg was a “serious man” and that he intended to “build bridges”.
Yet, the film isn’t completely free of scenes which seem critical or inaccurate; to start with, the FBI agents enter the kingdom after pressuring a Saudi official.
“The movie’s goofiness arises from its premise, in which the FBI investigators manage to blackmail a Saudi ambassador and circumvent their own director, the U.S. attorney general and the notoriously inflexible Royal Kingdom to land in Riyadh and start asking questions”, wrote Desson Thompson in The Washington Post.
Another aspect that could be misconstrued by some in “The Kingdom” is that the Saudis are not as determined as their American counterparts in combating terrorism
The film director, Peter Berg, argues that this isn’t the case and tells Asharq Al Awsat that from his experience in Saudi Arabia he knows that “Saudis are as determined as the Americans are when it comes to fighting the terrorists”, he adds “Osama Bin Laden hates the Saudi royal family as much as he hates the Americans”.
Yet, Peter believes that Americans are better at solving crimes in general. He adds “They are more experienced than the Saudis; many members of security forces from around the world come to the US to study with the FBI”.
However, General Mansour Al Turki – official spokesperson for the Saudi Interior Ministry, differs in opinion to the US director “With all due respect to the abilities of all countries around the world, all our work and achievements in (fighting terrorism in) Saudi Arabia was one hundred percent national”.
Al Turki gives a recent example of the efficiency of Saudi security forces by stressing the swift results achieved in solving the case of the murdered French national (February 2007), where the details of this terrorism related crime were uncovered and the murderers caught in a record time.
As for real life cooperation with other international security agencies, Al Turki says “There is no direct relationship between the agencies themselves, but like other agencies we benefit from whatever is new in the market, be it useful ideas or the latest in modern technology”.
The film also suggests that a terrorist organization managed to obtain Saudi security forces uniforms, which enabled them to enter the Western compound. It also contains the torture scene a Saudi sergeant wrongfully accused of aiding the terrorists.
General Al Turki confirms that the terrorists have actually used disguises to pass security check-point. “Security forces-like uniforms and cars re-painted to look like official police vehicles where used in particular in the Al Mohaya compound (2003) and Wahat Abdulaziz compound in Khobar (2004) attacks”.
However, Al Turki says it is not impossible to acquire uniforms similar to those of Saudi security forces, adding that “Anyone could arrange something similar, and lets not forget that there is a large number of security forces that get them tailored in various shops.. it is not difficult to penetrate these shops”.
However, Al Turki denies any infiltration of the security forces by the terrorists, he argues that attacks have gone down quickly and dramatically, “This wouldn’t have been the case if we were infiltrated”.
As for torturing, Al Turki says “Many convict terrorists have been captured and released, and they have never complained of torture nor did we see any signs of it on them”. He adds “Parents and families of these convicts visit them according to procedure, if their kids were tortured, they would have known and complained”. However, he also says “some non- Saudi convicts, who were sent back to their countries, have complained of torture, but none of these complaints were proven”.
For his part, Peter Berg says “as for terrorists obtaining uniforms, this is something that is not Saudi-specific, this has become popular in terrorist attacks in the Middle East, especially in Iraq”. He justifies the torture scene by saying “When these things happen (terrorist attacks) I feel torture is not an option that is not on the table for any security agency”, adding that “If Americans hide information on Americans, they get secluded in a dark room, it is fair to suggest that the Saudis will do whatever they need to do, no matter how on popular that is”.
Another interesting aspect is the on-screen prominence given to “Faris Al Ghazi” in the film.
According to many critics Ashraf Barhoum did a very convincing job in his performance, and it is clear that he exerted a lot of effort in trying to “Saudize” his mannerisms and accent, although most Saudis would be able to spot mistakes in his dialect as well as spotting many inaccuracies in the set designs.
“Let us be realistic, you can’t expect an American film to be a hundred percent(accurate) in representing or reflecting the Arab world” says Barhoum, adding that “from here, it is very possible that some people might not like the film, and I hope they are very few, but what I can say is that what we have here is an American movie that talks about two different mentalities, which tries and succeeds in finding a match-point between two different characters, that come from two different worlds”.
However, al Turki believes that the film relied on the international media’s “first impressions” of the terrorism situation in Saudi Arabia. He argued, “If you ask these questions to international journalists today, you will find they have come to realize that the reality is very different than the convictions that they had in the beginning.”
Al Turki elaborates that these first impressions were a result of not communicating with the media at first. “Journalists were obtaining their information based on rumors and unofficial sources,” he explained adding that “today, the strategy has changed and official spokespersons have been appointed.” “Most operations are taking place in the presence of the media’s cameras and microphones,” stated al Turki.
One point worth mentioning is the effort exerted in “Saudizing” the set. It was evident that a lot of attention was paid to detail, covering everything from the badges of security forces, cars and uniforms to shop signs and even the Thowbs worn at home by many Saudis.
How did they manage to accomplish this? There were local experts working on set and, Peter Berg explains, HRH Prince Turki al Faisal met with him several times and allowed him to obtain two visas to go to Saudi Arabia.
“I went to Jeddah and met with friends and police officers. I photographed police cars, shop signs and buildings,” says Berg, explaining that the pictures he took were instrumental to building the set in Arizona.
The car chase sequences were shot in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where a luxurious hotel was chosen to represent a Saudi royal palace. Berg expressed his thanks to Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, for his help in facilitating entry to the country and the filming in general. He said that Sheikh Mohammad and his team proved to the Western business world how safe it is to do business in Abu Dhabi.
In all cases, the film is definitely action-packed, and perhaps Saudis and Arabs may enjoy it more than Americans, as events are depicted as taking place in the Saudi capital…and it is not every day that you watch a Hollywood-style car chase happening on the streets of Riyadh. For Westerners, the movie might be an interesting “insight” to a culture that is very different to their own, but most importantly it builds on the similarities between moderates in the West and in the Middle East, and the lingering threat of terrorism to both worlds.
•Faisal Abbas is Asharq Al Awsat’s Media Editor.