Unofficial Guide for Western Journalists Visiting Saudi Arabia
Prior to US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia — which is also expected to receive heavy reporting in upcoming week on Saudi Arabia — I wondered if I could create a short list of guidelines for journalists to kindly consider while pulling up their sleeves and diving into my country. I have been a writer since 2010 and also a consumer of whatever is written about Saudi Arabia in international media. Some stories are great and encouraged, while many are severely expected or may represent “fake news!” Let’s start.
1- Read about Saudi Arabia from local sources. Whatever happens in Las Vegas, you most likely read about it in The Las Vegas Times (if there is something equivalent) and not anywhere else. Explore, for example, Arab News, which has honestly become a superior source of news and views under its new editor-in-chief Faisal Abbas. Yes, you may remember the celebrated piece on Columnist Andrew Bowen dismissal (who I met several times in Washington, DC and knew to be a smart individual), which some consider a lesson of journalism ethics in the 21st century. Another news outlet that one might follow is Al Arabiya English, which covers Saudi affairs quite well. Plus, if you read our literature, yes, we do have novelists. Start with works of Ghazi Al Gosaibi, Turki Al Hamad, and Yousef Al Mohaimeed (all have been translated into multiple languages).
2- Avoid women (or more precisely writing about women). Not a joke: this includes women driving, women’s rights, women’s dress, shaking hands with women, women covering their hair, women empowerment, women at work, the first Saudi female lawyer or any first Saudi female in any field, guardianship, falling in love with Saudi woman, or women fleeing the country; thus, basically anything about women. I know it’s the elephant in the room and there is also this hidden weird thing about “making the world a better place” by writing about women in Saudi Arabia to liberate them. Yet, be creative or sharply investigative. Do something like this.
3- Remember, social media is a big deal in Saudi Arabia. My mom, who is in her 60s, is active on SnapChat. She is killing it, and I have to confess she was the one to convince me to create an account there. I don’t want to bother you with the number of Saudis who have at least one social media account or the percentage of YouTube viewers (93% of Saudi nationals are online), but we live in that bubble. That bubble, however, is not completely virtual. It’s real and a tool that influence politics and policy discussion in the country.
4- Reporting remotely is comfortable, but visiting the country is challenging and an adventure. I frequently meet Middle East/Gulf so-called experts who never visited Saudi Arabia, and the worst part of my conversations with them about Saudi Arabia is this: I have heard that Jeddah is liberal and Riyadh is conservative. Well, I may surprise you by saying that Italians love pizza, Spanish are short, and Swedish are happy …etc. which are judgments I make without ever setting foot in those countries. Without visiting the country, those perceptions — while arguably right — produce poor reporting. I know that getting a Visa is still a tough process if you are not from Bloomberg, Economist, and everyone in the New York Times, excluding Ben Hubbard, but you should try as empirically (sorry, no reference) your writing will improve.
5- Hospitality. The joke goes: why is Saudi Spiderman always gaining weight? Because Saudis insist on inviting him for dinner every time he helps one of them. Ghazi Al Gosaibi, an excellent statesman and intellectual, once said that hospitality is one of the remaining characteristics that Saudis preserve despite social and economic changes. Of course we still have interesting things to show to the world, but the point is sound. Saudis — generally speaking — love to host people. We feel internally fulfilled and satisfied, so prepare yourself for that.
6- Learn Arabic, or at least pretend you speak it. Saudi Arabia is not like other Arab Gulf states where you expect everyone to understand English. You might meet Western-educated Saudis who speak English fluently, but you will miss the actual and silent Saudi Arabia. Many government bureaucrats, workers, and young women and men who are active in social media lake the opportunity to speak to you due to the formal education, which is mainly in Arabic. I encourage you, whenever you go (this does not apply to Saudi Arabia only), to through some Arabic words. By this I mean use really long and funny words (not Assalamu Alaikum or Marhaba for God sake), and you will most likely receive some positive reactions. Saudis are proud of their language, as they perceive themselves to be the guardians of Islam and Arabic culture, but we are the Germans!.
7- Sleep with a Saudi, I mean in a Saudi middle-class house. Charlie Chaplin once said, “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.” To write really well about Saudi Arabia, you need a family to live with and talk to. The circulated claim is that hotels in Riyadh are cheaper on weekends as the city is for business only. If you have the chance to live with a real family for one night or two on the weekend, don’t miss it (Hint: don’t use Airbnb).
8- Visit and report on a small town. At least 40% of the population lives in rural and small towns throughout the country. Visiting Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam (Qatif) is awesome, but you will never understand the US by living in Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles (who voted for Trump?). Saudi Arabia — geographically speaking — is № 13 in size. Some attempts to tell the story of the countryside were good, but more are also encouraged.
9- Saudis have a dark sense of humor. If you don’t believe this statement, so far you are an idiot or read the Twitter mentations of ministers who were dismissed last month.
10- Tweet this article. Come on!