The Diplomatic Cables, Saudi Edition (1)

Thanks to hurricane Irene, I’m stuck at home for most of the weekend. So I thought I could use the time to go through the latest dump of US diplomatic cables about Saudi Arabia that was released yesterday.

One cable from January 2006 focuses on the cultural and sports programming by the US mission to Saudi Arabia. The cable says that the “creative implementation of seemingly uncontroversial programs can be extremely effective” especially when it comes to getting access to youth and women, two groups labeled as “hard to reach.” The cable correctly notes the differences between regions when it comes to organizing cultural events. Unsurprisingly, Riyadh is the most difficult due to the conservative nature of the city. Interestingly, the cable adds, “Working with the minority community of Shia is often easier than with the mainstream Sunnis.”

When I was living in Riyadh I used to attend some of the cultural events organized by the US Embassy there like music concerts. But the cable says that “Large-scale performances of musical groups can be difficult, given the security situation, the lack of a strong musical tradition in Saudi Arabia, and the possibility of religious disapproval.” Another problem mentioned here is women ability to access such programming. I still remember how in 2009 a female friend of mine was denied entrance to the Diplomatic Quarter to attend an such event because she did not have her mahram with her. Entering the DQ is a problem to many Saudis, but it was definitely worse for women.

Finally, the cable notes that sports programming has not been used in the past. This remained to be the case until this year when the US Consulate in Jeddah helped organize the first ever sports exchange between the two countries by inviting six young female basketball players to Washington DC.

Let’s stay in Jeddah, where a cable from April 2006 discusses the infrastructure problems of the city, specifically the infamous “Musk Lake” or the “Perfume Lake” as the cable calls it. In its summary, the cable says that “treatment of 85% of the sewage is at least six years away.” Nature did not wait for six years. Heavy rains and major floods paralyzed the city in late 2009 and again in early 2011 with hundreds of deaths. An investigation was ordered, but it did not go anywhere. Earlier this month, charges were dropped against eight of the major suspects in the case to the dismay of many Jeddawis.

Another cable from the coastal city suggests that Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) in February of that year has been concluded with a lot of optimism. That is true. Back then, there was a lot of optimism and hope in the air. King Abdullah has just ascended the throne with many promises of reform and change. We all know what happened since then. JEF is no longer the star-magnet it once was, and we’ve heard many calls to cancel it, especially from the conservatives who viewed it as a platform to promote liberal ideas.

Moving to the east coast, there were a couple of interesting tidbits in this “Dhahran Digest” cable.

One item in the cable talks about an AP reporter who was in the country for JEF and wanted to visit the Eastern Province to write about the Shia minority and Aramco. Both stories fell through. He “was not given permission by the Ministry of Petroleum to visit Aramco, in spite of assurances to the contrary.” As for the story on Shia, his editors decided to kill it because AP was negotiating with the government to open a bureau in Riyadh at the time and did not want to compromise their chances. Two years later, AP opened the Riyadh bureaue and appointed Donna Abu-Nasr as bureau chief. But AP could not keep Abu-Nassr happy and she recently left them to join Bloomberg.

Another item offers a glimpse into a lunch between the political officer at the Consulate and an unnamed member of the Al-Ahsa municipal council. I did a little digging to confirm that the member mentioned here is Mohammed al-Owafeir, who also serves as the dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Food at King Faisal University.

During the lunch, al-Owafeir receives a phone call from a female graduate student who needs help. “I feel very sorry for her,” he said after finishing the call, “but I cannot give her the help she needs” because of the strict gender segregation rules. He explained, “She is not even allowed to use the lab at the university and has to use an inferior lab at nearby college for women. It is very difficult for her to work by herself, without guidance in-person.”

Saudi women feature heavily in another cable from the Jeddah consulate, which talks about two new career paths like wedding DJ-ing. The cable also dedicates a paragraph to “Layalina,” a glossy society magazine that is “primarily a collection of photographs featuring prominent royalty, hip upper-class Saudis, and the occasional foreigner” at events and restaurants. It describes the photos of women without abayas and head scarves as “groundbreaking” for the country, but notes “that some conservatives have objected to the (for Saudi Arabia) risqu (sic.) portrayal of couples in public and the “revealing” photographs of women.” If you can read Arabic, you should read this blogpost that Yaser Bakr wrote about the magazine and why it has been a success and also why this success might not last for too long.

Tomorrow, I will follow up with another post looking into more diplomatic cables. Stay tuned.

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