Saudi Arabia’s ‘reform’ offensive

The kingdom presents ‘reform’ by being so extreme, anything seems like progress.

Anyone paying attention to major media outlets in the West has been subjected to a concerted “deep-selling” campaign. The product? Saudi Arabia.
In any sales campaign designed to deep sell, the audience, in this case the West, is closely studied, its inner culture understood and experts dispatched to softly explain the product.
When dealing with a Western audience, Saudi Arabia has realized that dispatching its robed royalty to television shows probably won’t have a great effect. How can you sell reform when the very appearance of the messenger conveys the opposite message? So instead, Saudi Arabia has for decades now quietly recruited well-spoken Westerners, especially Western women, to its cause.
Western women living in Saudi Arabia are the primary cheerleaders in this respect. Blogs such as or are examples. Some of these women show the good laundry with the bad. For instance Susie tells us, “I do have a problem understanding why my husband insists that my hair has to be covered in a small private social setting where other women are not covered.”
However, there is still the claim that the Western media have conspired against Saudi Arabia. Moudhy al-Rashid, a Saudi woman studying at Columbia, noted in a 2006 interview that the West “reduces the experiences of Saudi women to the symbolic markers of oppression (such as driving, the veil, polygamy, etc.), [which] is to rob women of their historical and political agency.”
Fiona Hill of the Australian-Arab Chamber of Commerce claimed that Saudi Arabia is the victim of Western media bias: “Humans by nature default to stereotypes.”
An article by Hassna Mokhtar that appeared in the Arab News illustrates the method by which Saudi Arabia uses Western and women’s voices to enhance its image. After quoting a number of Saudi women and men, the author quotes “American writer Mary Coons” and then “American Michelle LaGue” and someone named Joan Corey. The insinuation is clear: these Western women give Saudi a “kosher” stamp of approval. Saudi Arabia, long perceived as the worst example of the suppression of women, uses female voices in order to anesthetize itself.
Saudi female journalists are enlisted as well. Maha Akeel wrote in The Jerusalem Post on February 14 (in an article also published in the Qatar Morning Post) that there is “more to Saudi women than the niqab... perhaps one of the most misunderstood and stereotyped countries in the world is Saudi Arabia, particularly when it comes to women.” Akeel tells us that “despite the images perpetrated by Western media, Saudi women have come a long way, and are increasingly recognized for our achievements despite the obstacles we face.”
THEN SAUDI Arabia made a real coup. In the first half of March, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd visited the country. In four columns between March 3 and 14 she underscored her view of the kingdom. Her first column, “Loosey goosey Saudi,” described the king as a “social revolutionary,” and claimed that “I can confirm that, at their own galactically glacial pace, they are chipping away at gender apartheid and cultural repression.” Prince Saud al-Faisal informed the enraptured columnist that “the trend for reform is set.”
Her second column was on an interview with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, the same Prince Saud. Dowd decided not to sneak into Mecca because it “seemed disrespectful, not to mention dangerous.” Although denied the ability to go to a mosque – “I was told that non-Muslims could not visit mosques” – Dowd was moved by hearing the call to prayer. Despite meeting an American woman who admits she is referred to as a “dog” when some men address her, and that she cannot drive home from the airport until a male relative comes to pick her up, Dowd presented a rosy picture of a kingdom supposedly in transformation.
Dowd’s travels around Saudi Arabia and her fusillade of columns in America’s most respected newspaper had followed quickly on the heels of an on-line commentary on the same paper’s Web site by Eric Etheridge titled “Saudi Arabia: Change we can believe in?” and a February 25 editorial which claimed there was a “promise of reform in Saudi Arabia.” The Times claimed “King Abdullah has demonstrated a laudable desire for change.”
On March 3, 2009, Robert Worth, a Times news analyst, headlined his article “For Saudi liberals, a ripple of hope in a sea of tradition.”
As if readers weren’t already drowning in words written about Saudi Arabia, a March 16 column by Ian Bremmer was meant to be the knockout. Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, claimed in “A Kingdom slowly changes” that we shouldn’t be surprised “if King Abdullah is one day remembered as the man who brought the beginnings of real change to a place that badly needed it.”
The Saudi Arabia “reform” offensive is not new. A February 2009 offensive had resulted in an article in the Economist titled “Reform in Saudi Arabia.” The way Saudi Arabia achieves plaudits for “reform” is to be so extreme that anything seems like progress.
Why do Western media fall for it? In the American South of the 1950s,was it considered “progress” when a black man wasn’t hanged by the KKKbut merely whipped? Gene Hackman’s character in Mississippi Burning says something to that effect: “It’s progress; years ago they’d have strung ’em up for stealing a watermelon.”
Barry Goldwater once quipped that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Well, our media is pursuing liberty in Saudi Arabia at a glacial pace, and it is no virtue.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.