The Siege of Mecca

Although the uprising of Juhayman Al Otaibi in Mecca in 1979 played a crucial role in shaping politics and culture in modern Saudi Arabia, few details are available to the public about the sorry events that took place in the dawn of the current hijra century. I was born in 1984 and the first time I heard the name of Juhayman was only a few years ago following 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. That’s why when I visited the US in September I made sure to purchase a copy of The Siege of Mecca, a book that tries to investigate the uprising in Islam’s holies site. The author is Yaroslav Torfimov, a staff foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

Once I started reading the book I was hooked and I could not put it down. The kind of fine details Torfimov provides were thrilling and sometimes even shocking to me. I was expecting this book to be a dry recount of the events based on some declassified documents the author obtained from the American archives but I’m glad I was wrong. The background of Juhayman, the way he led the uprising, and how the government dealt with the assault in addition to the historical context of the events made this book a very interesting and action-packed read.

Since many people who were involved in the uprising are still among us, some of them even serving in the very same positions, the book should give you a better understanding of the forces and ideas that influence the current situation in the country and the ongoing power struggle between them. Also of note is the secrecy that remains one of the most visible aspects of Saudi politics to this day.

The book goes into detail regarding concurrent events such as the attacks on US embassies in Muslim countries. These details may be more interesting to the American audience than readers like me, but these are not any less important because they help to explain the reasoning behind the US foreign policy in the region for years to come. The author also dedicated a chapter to the uprising in Qatif and how the government pulled out some forces from Mecca to crack down on the revolutionaries there.

One the most striking findings for me was the role of the official religious establishment. Believe it or not, most of the rebels were actually arrested a few months before the attack but the government released them based on instructions from the religious establishment. You would think that such thing would make the government lose its faith in the clerics, but surprisingly the horrific events led to a deal that empowered the religious establishment, making way to the rise of extremism and later the birth of Al Qaeda.

Due to the sensitivity of the subject here, I don’t think the book will see the daylight in Saudi Arabia, but I guess you can order it from Amazon or buy it when you go abroad. Highly recommended: 5/5.

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Al Ekhbariya: Fresh (On) Air

When Al Ekhbariya was launched few years ago people thought this was MOI’s attempt to compete with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. This did not turn out to be the case. Instead, Al Ekhbariya focused on national issues and local news stories. You would think this is the least you can expect from a government-owned television channel, but looking at the history of Ch 1 and Ch 2 it is understood why we were impressed by the local coverage of Al Ekhbariya. Ch 1 and Ch 2 were so disconnected from reality (Ch 2 has improved lately, Ch 1 still sucks).

But media junkies in the Kingdom should have realized that early on when Mohammed Al Tounsi was chosen to head the new channel. Al Tounsi, who came from the print media empire SRPC, is largely known for transforming Al Eqtisadiah from a dry economic publication to a popular newspaper mainly by featuring local issues that get no coverage in other newspapers.

I have had the pleasure to meet Al Tounsi earlier this year in his office in Riyadh, and he talked about the channel, reform and the social changes that our country is going through. We usually listen to leaders like him talk about these issues, but what about the regular men and women walking down the street? Enter So’al Al Youm (Question of the Day), a show on Al Ekhbariya where reporters go out and meet people in streets and shopping malls to ask them about their opinions in all kinds of issues.

The program is the brainchild of Al Tounsi. The idea occurred to him right after one of the terrorist attacks that hit Riyadh not a very long time after the launch of the channel. He sent a crew to record people’s direct reaction and it was a success. If you have followed the program for a long time you can observe the change in people’s attitudes. “At the beginning people were afraid to appear on TV and speak out. Now when they see the the reporter and the cameraman they run to them to ask if they can participate,” Al Tounsi said.

In a country where you don’t have reliable tools to measure public opinion, a simple television program like this could help to detect trends and changes in people’s mindsets, especially on polarizing issues such job opportunities for women and misyar marriages.

Also of note on Al Ekhbariya is a show called Hazrat Al Muwaten (Dear Citizen), where you can find some of the best local reporting work on the screen. I like Buthaina Al Nassr and I like her improvised yet elegant style of work where she won’t simply settle for the comfort of a chair in an air-conditioned studio but rather would go to poor neighborhoods and smelly places like the fish market to bring stories of very normal people who truly struggle to make a living, just like the rest of us.

Buthaina, who recently left the channel and joined Al Hurra to work on a new talk show to be aired later this month, says she never watches the show after she is done working on it. “I put a lot of work into it and I can’t watch it after they edit many things out,” she told me.

However, Al Ekhbariya lacks an important factor for any television channel to gain a larger audience, especially a news channel. Simply put, Al Ekhbariya has no stars. I don’t mean to undermine the value of teamwork and I totally agree that the quality of the end product is more significant to viewers than the individuals involved in producing it. But on television you always need familiar faces that people can relate to, and to a large extent this is still missing from the channel. Also, there are so many talk shows on the channel but little is done to distinguish one from another, so I think they should put more work on that.

Al Ekhbariya’s arrival to the media scene of the country was groundbreaking on some regards and not-so-groundbreaking on others, but it has nevertheless introduced a long-awaited breeze of fresh air in a desert that enjoyed silence for so long. It was shocking to some, but for many of us this amount of disruption and controversy, little as it may seem, was just what we needed.

Driving While Drunk

You would think that in a country where the consumption of liquor is illegal, drunk driving won’t be a problem to deal with, but Molouk Ba-Isa got some news for you. She, like many who live near King Fahd Causeway, aka the Johnny Walker Bridge, is complaining that they have to deal with impaired drivers every weekend, and it gets much worse during the Eid week every year.

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She goes into the details that I’m not sure if most of you need to know, but here is the money quote: “The problem is a lack of enforcement.” On both sides of the causeway, little is done to prevent the potential dangers of drunk drivers. Sadly, some people don’t know how to celebrate without putting others and themselves in danger.

Speak of the Devil…

That was fast. Only a few minutes after posting this, look what I found: Hamza Al Mozainy is very disappointed at Sheikh Salman Al Awdah for an article about Eid Al Fitr that he wrote for Al Jazirah daily which included what can be considered hate speech. Al Mozainy has denounced in particular the use of the term ‘raifdah’ to describe Shiite Muslims. “[I]t is not meant as a description but rather discrimination against a group of Muslim Saudi citizens,” he said.

Just like Al Mozainy, I found it very surprising that Al Awdah, a sheikh that has become known for his moderation and tolerance, would say something like that. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t some sort of a misunderstanding or misquoting, so I went to Al Jazirah website to read the article myself. You can find it here, and unfortunately that paragraph Al Muzaini quoted is there.

Still, I had a feeling that there was something wrong. I went to Islam Today, a website supervised by Salman Al Awdah himself, where you can find most of his published articles and media appearances. I found the same article, but the paragraph about the Shiites was no where to be found. What is going on here? Did Al Awdah write that paragraph or not? Is it possible that an editor in Al Jazirah has added the paragraph to the article without the knowledge of Al Awdah?

In an email exchange earlier this morning, Al Mozainy told me it is unlikely that someone at Al Jazirah would have the audacity to edit the article. However, “it is the responsibility of Al Awdah to clarify this,” he added. I have emailed Sheikh Salman Al Awdah asking about the issue and I have yet to receive a response. If he responded I will update this post.

Poor Journalism Says Hi

I’ve been following the local mainstream media closely for the last three years. One of the things that I observed is that some of the English-language press here do a better job when it comes to reporting important and controversial local stories. Part of this has to do with the fact that they are in English so they are not under the radar of the censorship, but more importantly because their editors are usually committed to higher standards than their peers in the Arabic ones.

arab_news_logoHowever, every once in awhile the very same publications come up with gems like this which make me reconsider that observation. Other than some unknown market analysts, the reporter relied completely for his story on one source only: the owner of a company that runs a few of these amusement parks and who apparently looks forward to open more of them. And why not? I mean he, after all, was the one who said his “centers were located in attractive places, close to beaches and residential areas” as well as being “equipped with advanced educational and entertainment facilities.”

This piece of lousy reporting, and believe me I’m being way too nice to describe it as reporting when it sounds like a paid for commercial more than anything else, makes me lose my hope in the future of the fourth estate in this country. When I spent two weeks in the States last September I decided to take a break from the Saudi MSM while I was there and guess what? I didn’t miss it that much.