While most of the male students wore scrubs, the female students’ attire was interesting. By law, all women in the Kingdom, including foreigners, must wear abayas—long-sleeved robes (usually black) that completely cover their bodies—in public places. Only female medical students and other female medical workers may wear white, hip-length lab coats. Most of the women had jeans and sneakers on underneath. Several wore the niqab, or face veil, widely used in Saudi Arabia. But I was surprised that so many women chose to show their faces.
Here is the punch line: the students were terrific, particularly the women. Bright and assertive, eager to engage, they were helping the medical school faculty revise and modernize the curriculum. Several women planned on becoming neurosurgeons, and most intended to continue working after marriage.
Afterwards, our difficulties with appointments continued. Throughout our visit, MOCI and other Saudi officials utilized a variety of ploys to avoid giving offense by overtly turning down a request. The following are some common Saudi avoidance strategies:
Wait Out the Clock. The institution you are dealing with doesn’t say no, but it doesn’t say yes. It simply waits until a deadline has passed or a trip has ended, and the problem takes care of itself.
Yes, but…. The party you wish to meet agrees, but sets conditions that make the meeting impossible. Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, now the Crown Prince, agreed to meet our delegation, but in Jeddah, the day we were scheduled to fly from Riyadh back to the US.
Bait and Switch. You are assured you are getting the event you asked for. When you show up, it bears no resemblance to what you have been promised. With Prince Salman unavailable in Jeddah, MOCI proposed his son, Sultan bin Salman, the Saudi astronaut turned tourism minister, and several of his royal peers. Fifteen minutes prior to the event, Mr. A. assured us the princes would be there. When we arrived at the restaurant where the meeting was to take place, however, no royals were present. A bunch of puzzled Saudi journalists had been hastily summoned for dinner. Later we learned Prince Sultan was in Mexico at the time, and the other princes weren’t in Riyadh that day.
Honestly, I shouldn’t lay all blame at MOCI’s door. For many Saudis in government and business, speaking to Western journalists is like getting a root canal. They are loath to talk on-the-record for good reason—there can be harsh penalties for speaking out.
This media shyness hasn’t prevented Saudis from dominating the Arab world’s media. Saudis own the largest Arab media organizations, over 100 satellite television channels, and the largest and most influential pan-Arab newspapers, al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat. Interestingly, the vast majority of these news organizations, many controlled by members of the Saudi royal family, are headquartered outside of Saudi Arabia, to avoid Saudi government censorship.
The Kingdom, though, may be on the cusp of great change. Two-thirds of its population is under 29, and the young seem less fearful than their parents of taking risks. Saudi Arabia’s alternative, unofficial media is Internet based, and has some of the most interesting commentary in Saudi Arabia today.
Independent male and female bloggers and comedians are gaining the audience that Saudi Arabia’s stodgy official press is losing. To cite just two examples: Ahmed al-Omran, a 27 year-old Columbia Journalism School graduate, who has worked for NPR, comments on political and social issues in Saudi Arabia at his blog saudijeans.org. Fahad al-Butairi, a young geophysicist with a degree from the University of Texas at Austin, is Saudi Arabia’s Jon Stewart. His Internet comedy show La Yekthar (“put a lid on it”), thoughtfully captioned in English, has received over 50 million page views. Episode 14 includes a series of hilarious “man in the street” interviews in New York’s Time Square that poke fun at official Saudi attitudes about women, Jews, and other subjects.
As with everything in the Kingdom, though, change will probably take time. The term “step-by-step” is a national mantra. If you are an American journalist heading to Saudi Arabia, good luck.
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