The recent attack on a British man by members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia) in Riyadh has reignited the debate on Saudi Arabia’s public image in the West.
Saudi Arabia has an image deficit which was worsened with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has not seemed to recover. Saudi officials are very well aware of this and have admitted it on a number of occasions. Despite their awareness, the explanation given by them has failed to clarify and create an understanding of the reasons why we suffer from a negative image and whether or not aspects of our policies are part of the problem.
The Saudi public image in the West is conditioned by specific political, historical and cultural factors. A key aspect in the formation of its image is related to the experience of Western expatriates in the Kingdom. Since the formation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, hundreds of thousands of Europeans and Americans have come to the Kingdom to work. While this has allowed many of them to enrich their understanding of our culture and values, the “feedback” effect of such experiences has been uneven.
Aspects of our domestic policies relating to personal freedoms are perceived negatively abroad where policies that govern civil rights and liberties are not only considered paramount in democratic states, but are also vital to governing and promoting a healthy civil society.
I recently attended a conference about the future of GCC unity in Cambridge and spoke with some British people who currently live in Saudi Arabia. Issues such as women’s rights and the role of the religious police in social life have dominated and clouded their general perception of Saudi Arabia. One person complained about not being able to move around without carrying his marriage certificate in Riyadh. Another mentioned that he was asked to leave a shopping mall because he is a bachelor. These policies are challenging for Western expats in the Kingdom.
That being said, I believe that the deficit of information made available to the general public can be also linked to the unfavorable perception of Saudi Arabia. The coverage of Saudi Arabia in most of the Western media is often “thin” in comparison with other countries in the region. However, we are also involved in influencing media content. Wide-ranging restrictions applied to foreign journalists make it difficult for foreign media organizations to provide accurate and in-depth coverage that could offer adequate perspectives to international audiences. The restrictions on journalists combine with a disinterest on our part in providing competing reports that could offer alternative perspectives to international audiences.
For example, Saudi Arabia does not have an English-language satellite channel, which could provide countervailing information and demonstrate different aspects of Saudi culture to viewers in Europe or America. This appears unusual, given the large budget allocated to the Saudi media and the Ministry of Culture and Information by the central government. I think we are not motivated enough to promote knowledge of our society and policies among Western audiences as we feel secure in our relationship with the world due to our deep economic and political ties.
However, with the rapid pace of change in technology and new media, we must tell our story and share information with the world or we will find ourselves in a defensive position in the face of the world’s negative opinion.
This can be addressed by a more coherent communications strategy that gives a deeper picture of the country, but this needs a greater sense of the direction of the country as a whole. Is our domestic reform going to kick in to make genuine change to our policies? Clarity of communications will only come from clarity of direction and strategy.
Source: Saudi Gazette