Saudi medical students meet the press. Photo by Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

During the eight years I organized overseas trips for US news editors at the International Reporting Project, I had a rule of thumb that served me well—if a country has a Ministry of Information, it means trouble.

So when, after a two-year effort, the Saudi Royal Court finally granted IRP’s request to bring 12 editors to the Kingdom on a fact-finding/study tour, and assigned the visit to the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI), I was prepared for headwinds. I didn’t realize it would be a nor’easter.

Until very recently, Saudi Arabia was almost a closed shop as far as the US media was concerned. Apart from seismic events, like Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack that killed 19 US servicemen, Saudi officials saw little benefit in letting nosy American journalists wander around the country. With the exception of one resident reporter each for The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, and the occasional lone reporter, it has been difficult for US journalists to get visas.

Several years ago, however, some senior Saudi officials realized the Kingdom was doing itself a disservice by limiting US media access. The restrictions perpetuated an image of Saudi Arabia as a nation of religious extremists, where women sit at home and everyone is a millionaire—a caricature that does not convey the complex reality and the dynamic forces at work in Saudi society today. Cautiously, the Saudi government made greater efforts to open up. Permission for the IRP delegation’s spring 2012 visit was part of that push.

Still…. Similarities between arrangements for a 2010 China trip I organized and the 2012 Saudi visit were striking. Like China, Saudi Arabia requires visiting groups to have a “host” institution that sponsors the visit and organizes meetings. As in China, no Saudi institution will meet with a foreign group unless the host institution writes an official letter. The first question any Chinese or Saudi institution contacted about a potential meeting will ask is, “Who is your host?” Finally, as in China, the host institution sends a minder along, to attend all official meetings.

My first inkling that things might not go well was when I told various people in Washington with knowledge of Saudi Arabia that IRP’s host was the Ministry of Culture and Information. Most responded by burying their faces in their hands and shaking their heads. MOCI is known as a bastion of hostility to the Western press.

As in many countries, the information ministry’s main purpose is to monitor and control the press. In Saudi Arabia, no editor-in-chief can be hired without Ministry approval. MOCI also issues informal guidance on how and what stories to cover through its close relationship with the government-owned Saudi Press Agency. Other Saudi news organizations usually follow SPA’s cues. In addition, MOCI implements Internet restrictions and bans books.

During my February advance trip, I met several times with the men of MOCI. Women are said to work at the Ministry, but I never saw one. Like most Saudi government workplaces, gender segregation is strictly enforced at MOCI’s well-guarded Riyadh campus.

A mid-level official, whom I shall call Mr. K., explained the procedures required for us to request meetings with institutions—like the powerful state oil company Saudi Aramco, a university, the Ministry of the Interior, and the royal family. His desk was piled high with letters containing requests from foreign journalists for meetings and interviews. The Ministry, he explained, must endorse a foreign journalist’s each and every meeting at practically all Saudi institutions.

For the delegation’s visit I also engaged, independent of the Ministry, two lovely and competent young Saudi women—Deema al-Mashabi in Riyadh (who now works for Bloomberg), and Laura Bashraheel, a reporter who covers social issues for the Jeddah-based Saudi Gazette—to help with various aspects of the trip.

Saudi Arabia’s talent pool of young people is deep. Tens of thousands of Saudis have degrees from US universities. Many have a sophisticated knowledge of Western media.

Louise Lief is the former deputy director of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University. IRP provides opportunities for journalists and editors to do independent reporting on international stories under covered in the US media.